If you love natural history, biology, poetry, or lyrical memoir, you’ll probably love World of Wonders. Poet Aimee Nezhukumatathil and illustrator Fumi Nakamura have created an enrapturing book-cum-artwork which shows the breathtaking biodiversity of our world alongside the mosaic of memories that makes a human life remarkable.
Nezhukumatathil (nuh ZOO KOO mah tah till) skillfully interweaves her own story of growing up and living in many different places (Kansas, Arizona, and Ohio to name a few, not to mention visits to family in Kerala, India) with profiles of vital plants and wildlife which feature in that locale and her memories of it. One of my favorite examples is the chapter in which she describes the corpse flower, an enormous plant which blooms into a foul odor only once every few years. Not only does she describe the plant’s origins and lifecycles, but she also tells the reader how she used to use this flower as a story to test potential dates: her date’s reaction to hearing her enthusiasm for the corpse flower told her whether or not they should get a second date. Only one reacted with interest and curiosity and without judgement, and she married him. It makes for a fascinating, funny, and ultimately heartwarming chapter.
Other entries take the reader to more serious places: the enigmatic smile of the endangered axolotl is woven into Nezhukumatathil’s memories of the casually racist comments she endured growing up and well into adulthood. The fabulous flair of the peacock is part of a painful memory of a prejudiced teacher who assigned the class to draw their favorite animal — so long as it was an “American” animal. Even the first chapter about the catalpa tree is a bittersweet memory of going with her sister after school to meet their mother at her workplace – a Kansas mental institution – and facing the ridicule of classmates. In any circumstance, Nezhukumatathil found comfort and advice in the myriad strategies and adaptations of nature.
A book full of wonder, hope, gratitude, and ecological appreciation, peppered with lovely sketch-like illustrations, World of Wonders is not something you’ll want to miss.