Growing up Jane Goodall

When Ursula was seven years old, she decided that she wanted to be Jane Goodall. Her second-grade class had learned about Goodall’s groundbreaking work as a naturalist in Africa, and Ursula’s imagination was fired by the idea of living among chimpanzees in the dense forests of Tanzania. In fact, she liked the thought of that life so much that she made it clear that she didn’t want to grow up to study animals or have a career like Jane Goodall — she wanted to be Jane Goodall.

Ursula reminded me of this recently when we were talking about work she’d like to do when she’s older. Now that she’s almost a teenager, that list has expanded. But it continues to include jobs in the outdoors and field work — like the work of her first role model.

So when I saw a review of two children’s books about Jane Goodall in Sunday’s New York Times Book Review, I stopped to read. The picture books — Me … Jane, by Patrick McDonnell, the creator of the comic strip “Mutts”; and The Watcher, by Jeanette Winter — help young children learn how someone grows up to be Jane Goodall.

Both books follow the standard life of the young naturalist. Young Jane spent her childhood largely outdoors and in the company of animals both domestic (horses, chickens, dogs) and wild (turtles, even earthworms). She was, as the title of Winter’s book makes clear, a patient observer of her world. A telling incident that appears in both books has five-year-old Jane sitting for hours in a chicken coop, determined to understand exactly how eggs come from chickens.

Goodall was also strongly influenced by several books: The Story of Dr. Doolittle by Hugh Lofting, which delighted her with its descriptions of a man who talked to the animals; and Tarzan of the Apes by Edgar Rice Burroughs, which offered a vision of an African paradise, and a man who learned to live among the wild apes. Goodall gave Tarzan’s given name, Greystoke, to the first chimpanzee who befriended her in the early years of her research at what became the Gombe Stream National Park.

It’s possible that the new books will serve similar purposes for young girls and boys who are drawn to the natural world. The pictures will be appreciated by very young children, the stories and larger themes by readers in the elementary grades. I won’t be surprised if Ursula enjoys these books, too. I think she’ll feel a kinship with the young girl who grew up to become Jane Goodall — and perhaps will gain new understanding about her own dreams.

Learn more

- The Jane Goodall Institute describes ongoing research at Gombe.

- The JGI website also includes information about Goodall’s Roots and Shoots program for young people, now in its 20th year. The New England regional office lists more than 250 affiliated schools, museums, and programs in Massachusetts alone.

- Read reviews of Me…Jane and The Watcher in The New York Times Book Review.

- Watch a video interview with Jane Goodall about the new children’s books.

Great Kids, Great Outdoors” is an AMC Outdoors blog, written by Kristen Laine.

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