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The Watcher:
Jane Goodall, the woman who redefined mankind



The inspiring life of English ethologist and primatologist Jane Goodall has been told in several books and documentaries, starting with her own autobiography My life with the chimpanzees [1988] until the recent National Geographic documentary film Jane [2018], featuring a portrait of Goodall's groundbreaking research based on 100 hours never-seen-before footage.
The story of her life has also been adapted to a number of picture books for children, including the newly released addition to the stylish Little People, Big Dreams series [October 2018].
Although I like Beatrice Cerocchi's illustrations in that title, I was looking for something slightly more comprehensive for us. 
That biography series offers an age-appropriate level of detail for most of the names it features, but in a few cases I feel it's not informative enough to engage a 4 or 6 year old.  

Jane Goodall is an utterly positive role model whose life can inspire easily understandable values across all ages: she is one of the major contributors to primatology research in the 20th century, and she is a young woman in 1957, when she leaves London to study wild chimpanzees in Tanzania, at the age of 23. She becomes a contributor of the National Geographic, and earns a PhD in ethology in 1965, one of the very few people accepted at Cambridge without a Bachelor's degree.
But first of all she shows an endless curiosity about animal behaviour, which she channels into over five decades of patient observation and a life spent out in nature.





Goodall documented something that was completely new at that time: she observed that chimpanzees made and used tools, hugged, and kissed each other. They experienced adolescence, developed powerful mother-and-child bonds, and used trickery to get what they wanted. They also made war, wiping out members of their own species with almost genocidal brutality.
This work has held up a mirror to our own species, suggesting that many of our behaviours, once thought to be uniquely human, may have been inherited from the common ancestors that Homo sapiens shared with chimpanzees six million years ago.

There are really just a few concepts which might need to be omitted or kept at a more general level when telling her story to young children (like discrimination and access to study in the Fifties, animal abuse, poaching and deforestation).
In The Watcher published in 2011, NYC based picture book maker Jeanette Winter briefly recalls Jane's childhood and youth until her departure for Africa, mainly focusing on her observation skills and on her ability to connect with animals, then ends the story with a mention to her engagement as an activist and conservationist started in the '80s.
Patience, grace, respect,  unwavering love for wilderness are all values that Jane Goodall embodies and appear in the book. The importance of nature for physical and emotional wellbeing is another important theme mentioned at the end.
The Watcher is the best introduction to the story of the most recognised living scientist in the Western World for young children, and the exciting thing is that there are plenty of books and resources to follow up with starting with the beautiful Untamed: The wild life of Jane Goodall published by The National Geographic in 2015, which is aimed at children aged 8-12.
The transition from illustration to photography at some point is a necessity when it comes to non-fiction, it's a misconception that children can't value reality.
My daughter loved to see the 'real' Jane as a little girl, her pets and toys in her house in Hampstead (just a few minutes from where we live) and her tent in Gombe and all the chimpanzees that she named during the research. and that process was even more exciting once she already new the story from the picture book.
Animals are indeed quite different from their 'cute' illustrated version: they can be as cute, but in a different way, and I think children should deal with their real image as soon as they show to be ready.
Although this book is rich in text, it can be offered to a 5-8 year old as well, maybe reading only parts of it in multiple reading sessions.
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The Watcher: Jane Goodall's life with the chimps [2011] available here
by Jeanette Winter
English-language (US) edition published by Schwartz&Wade Books New York
Reading age: 4-8
Themes: Nature, Conservation, Animals
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UNTAMED: The wild life of Jane Goodall [2015] available here
by Anita Silvey
English-language (US) Edition published by The National Geographic
Reading age: 8-12
Themes: Nature, Conservation, Animals

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