Sunday, March 13, 2011

Nonfiction Monday: Big Night for Salamanders

Big Night for Salamanders
by Sarah Marwil Lamstein, illustrated by Carol Benioff
40 pages, for ages 7 – 9
Boyds Mills Press 2010

Every spring Spotted Salamanders migrate from their winter homes in the forested hills to their breeding ponds, where they mate and lay their eggs. It’s a long and dangerous journey, especially when the tiny amphibians – obscured in the rainy dark of night – must cross roads. Fortunately, children (and adults) show up on migration night, slowing down traffic and carrying salamanders across the roads.

Sarah Lamstein captures the excitement of this annual migration well in Big Night for Salamanders. Evan, racing home from the school bus, asks his parents: Is this the Big Night? He covers his flashlight with pink plastic so as not to hurt the salamanders’ eyes, and heads out to warn motorists to slow down.

A few weeks ago I asked Lamstein what inspired her to write the book – aside from her own experiences helping tiny amphibians across the road. “It’s the magic of the event,” she said – not just the yearly phenomenon of salamanders migrating to the pond en masse, but the magic of vernal pools. They’re present in the spring, but by the end of summer the seasonal pools are gone. Dried up. Disappeared.

“Then there is the magic of the Spotted Salamanders,” Lamstein said. “Their loveliness and their vulnerability.” The final bit of magic, she says, is in the children who help the salamanders cross a road on Big Night. 

Big Night alternates between two points of view. Part of the story is told through Evan’s voice, the child who can’t wait to put on his boots and head out to help his salamandery friends. The other half narrates an up-close-and-personal amphibious viewpoint about emerging from winter sleep and feeling the pull to head pondward.

“The most remarkable thing I learned,” says Lamstein, “is that they find their way to the vernal pool through remembered scents.” When the baby salamanders complete development and leave their pool for the upland forest, they remember the scents of the soil, plants and rocks along the way. This sensory map guides them back to the pool each year.  “It’s remarkable!” says Lamstein.

Lamstein’s deep appreciation for the spotted salamanders and her own involvement with Big Night give her story authenticity. No wonder Smithsonian listed Big Night for Salamanders in their 2010 Notable Books for Children.

This post is part of the Nonfiction Monday Round-Up hosted this week by Chapter Book of the Day; book provided from the local library.

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