Moth and Wasp, Soil and Ocean: Remembering Chinese Scientist Pu Zhelong's Work for Sustainable Farming

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The narrator is a composite of people Pu Zhelong influenced in his work. With further context from Melanie Chan's historically precise watercolors, this story will immerse young readers in Chinese culture, the natural history of insects, and the use of biological controls in farming. Backmatter provides context and background for this lovely, sophisticated picture book about nature, science, and Communist China.

"The first time I saw a scientist in my village was also the first time I saw a wasp hatch out of a moth's egg," writes the narrator of this picture book about Chinese scientist Pu Zhelong. "In that moment I could not have said which was the more unexpected--or the more miraculous."

In the early 1960s, while Rachel Carson was writing and defending Silent Spring in the U.S., Pu Zhelong was teaching peasants in Mao Zedong's Communist China how to forgo pesticides and instead use parasitic wasps to control the moths that were decimating crops and contributing to China's widespread famine.

This story told through the memories of a farm boy (a composite of people inspired by Pu Zhelong) will immerse young readers in Chinese culture, the natural history of insects, and sustainable agriculture. Backmatter provides historical context for this lovely, sophisticated picture book.

The author, Sigrid Schmalzer, won the Joseph Levenson Post-1900 Book Prize for 2018 for her book Red Revolution, Green Revolution. This is the most prestigious prize for a book about Chinese history, and the book upon which Moth and Wasp, Soil and Ocean is based.


A picture book about the scientist who pioneered integrated pest management sounds boring, but this title is anything but. Schmalzer presents the life of Pu Zhelong through flashbacks and connects it to a child's-eye-view of a changing world, all set against the backdrop of Communist-era China. The representative illustrations create a fascinating, multi-layered visual feast that frames the flashbacks as journal pages and which incorporate historically and scientifically accurate illustrations of tools and insects set within beautifully designed Chinese paper cuts. This title would be a great STEAM pick for classrooms or home use. Both the illustrations and the science are fantastic.-- "School Library Connection" (10/10/2018 12:00:00 AM)

The young narrator, a fictional composite, recalls how insect invasions seriously threatened essential rice and lychee harvests in rural 1960s-70s Guangdong, China. The narrator explains that farmers were relying on expensive pesticides, which made people sick and gradually became ineffective, to battle pests. The arrival of Pu Zhelong, a pioneering environmentalist trained in Minnesota, changed the locals' approach. Working with farmers and students, barefoot, Zhelong advocated for natural-predator balance, and health and harvests improved. Clear, detailed text and drawings explain the use of parasitic wasps and silk-moth eggs for biological control; a lucid afterword connects readers to history (and acknowledges that pesticides are still widely used); and a brief bibliography provides additional value. Author and illustrator gracefully convey their expertise. Lyrical yet realistic line-and-color wash illustrations, dominated by rich greens, assure visual appeal. The clever scrapbook conceit might produce some confusion about the narrator's age but allows for the introduction of a dozen decorative and instructive paper-cut Chinese characters. An endpage explains each.

VERDICT Readers interested in environmental science and Chinese history, language, and culture will find an engaging and informative story here.

-- "School Library Journal" 

We spent last summer battling paper wasps. They were making nests in every nook and cranny they could find. My daughter got stung multiple times while playing at her grandparents. The insects were a menace. Never in a million years did I think wasps could be useful. Then I read Moth and Wasp, Soil and Ocean. I was entertained and educated by the book.

Author Sigrid Schmalzer -- winner of the Joseph Levenson Post-1900 Book Prize for 2018 for her book Red Revolution, Green Revolution -- knows her subject well and that's apparent. Her strength, however, is her ability to make this topic accessible for young readers. While Moth and Wasp, Soil and Ocean is not overly technical, Schmalzer doesn't shy away from solid information.

Illustrator Melanie Chan builds on Schmalzer's text, providing context and making scientific process easier to understand. Chan's watercolor illustrations transport readers to China, exposing them to a culture that is utterly foreign to many. Moth and Wasp, Soil and Ocean is a lovely look at how humans both help and harm the environment.

Moth and Wasp, Soil and Ocean is a fascinating picture book that will appeal to adults as well as children.

--Jessica "Cracking the Cover blog"


SIGRID SCHMALZER, a professor of history at the University of Massachusetts (Amherst, MA), has lived in China, holds a doctorate in modern Chinese history and science studies, and is the author of Red Revolution, Green Revolution: Scientific Farming in Socialist China (2016) and the award-winning The People's Peking Man: Popular Science and Human Identity in Twentieth-Century China (2008).

New mom MELANIE LINDEN CHAN, of Rhode Island, works in a variety of media--including watercolor, acrylic, and pen and ink--to create books for children that open their minds to other cultures and ways of life. Moth and Wasp, Soil and Ocean is among her first book-length projects.


Target Age: 9-12

Tilbury House

Pub Date: May 26, 2020

0.3" H x 8.9" L x 10.0" W

40 pages