Usually the pictures in children’s books are just for the kids. But when reading The Prairie That Nature Built to my 14-month old daughter recently, I found myself staring at the artwork on the pages even longer than she was. That’s exactly what the artist, Cathy Morrison, wanted: illustrations that captured the spirit of the often-overlooked prairie landscape. Morrison, who has spent more than 20 years illustrating children’s books, says this particular book, which was authored by Marybeth Lorbiecki and debuted in August, was an ideal opportunity to celebrate one of the Rocky Mountain region’s most undiscovered landscapes.
The story starts little readers in the tunnels below the prairie with bugs and rodents and then explains each level of the ecosystem up to wolves and foxes on the hunt. Morrison, a resident of Livermore, a town outside of Fort Collins, lives on the very landscape The Prairie That Nature Built details. Morrison found herself seeing the wide, high elevation prairie as more than broad, waving fields of unkempt foliage. “When I read the story, I just fell in love with it,” Morrison says. “Visually, the concept came to me right away. A prairie is boring to most people. But there is a lot of life.” Morrison’s illustrations, all done digitally, create the prairie world in immaculate detail. From the glowing eyes of a stalking owl to the bristled face of an antelope, the art makes readers young and old stop and take in the intricate depictions.
The story is very personal for Morrison because after each level of life on the prairie is described, a fire engulfs the land leaving it black and charred. “In 2012, we evacuated from our home during the Hyde Park Fire” says Morrison. “The fire came within half a mile of our home, but it survived. Like this story, even after the land burned, we saw how quickly it renewed after the fire.”
Next time you’re driving through Colorado’s open prairie, Morrison says she hopes you’ll think about all the lives going on around you. “If you sit quietly and look at the grass, you don’t just see grass. There is life there and I wanted to show that.”
Bonus: The fire wasn’t the only close-to-home connection for Morrison. Look for depictions of her dog, grandchildren, and even her house on the last pages.
Get it: Snag a copy of The Prairie That Nature Built ($16.95), along with Morrison’s other new title, Dino Treasures ($17.95), at Tattered Cover bookstores.