BRATTLEBORO—For as long as he can remember, anthropologist and watercolor painter Charles Wagner Norris-Brown refused to accept the fact that adults could tell him what to do.
Never fully trusting the grown-up point of view, he confesses, “I always liked the freedom of children’s thinking better. It is beautiful how they think about the relationship of the world and nature, especially children from 8 to 12 or 13. They are not inhibited by prejudice and other preconceived ideas. They are the future, and they are willing to listen and be touched.”
Nonetheless, as if sensing something fragile in this vision that needs protection, he adds, “In these times, as things are not looking all that good, I would like to guide children not to think destructively.”
Norris-Brown wanted to find how could he combine his background in anthropology with his art to create messages of hope for children. This desire has led to his first children’s book, Did Tiger Take the Rain?
Starting a conversation
The book was published by Green Writers Press, a Brattleboro-based publisher founded by writer and environmental activist, Dede Cummings to, as she puts it, “give voice to writers and artists who will make the world a better place.”
Did Tiger Take the Rain? is one of its growing list of children’s literature published under its Sprouts for Kids department.
Did Tiger Take the Rain? takes place in a Tharu village in the Nepal terai of India which has been uncommonly hot and dry. One day, a tiger comes. People run away in fear. The villagers think it is a bad omen, and the tiger has taken the rain.
All the people run away in fear, except best friends Usha and Anjali, who set off in search of Tiger.
In the forest, the girls start on an adventure, meeting talking jackals and monkeys, each of whom tell their own side of the story how the tiger did not take the rain. The friends learn that forest helps make clouds. Rain comes from clouds and when the forests disappear, so will the rain.
In the end, both realize that when the sun shines, it shines down on humans and tigers both.
Norris-Brown believes Did Tiger Take the Rain? can be an accessible tool for beginning a conversation on climate change which is equally thought-provoking for children, teachers and parents.
’Not just any old story’
He explains, “I am not just telling any old story in this book. Did Tiger Take the Rain? has a message about protecting our environment that must be shared somehow. Conservation needs to focus among communities of the people who live near the forests — with its animals such as the tiger — but also with those far away.
“All of us share this world with the tiger — and not only the tiger. We share this world with all living things. We breathe the same air. We feel the same wind.”
Norris-Brown completed a Ph.D. in social anthropology and sociology at Lund University in Sweden in 1984, based on field work in the inner hills of Uttarakhand, India.
By 1990, Norris-Brown refocused his work to look at small communities living in and dependent on forests. This took him from the rain forests of Borneo to poor communities in eastern Canada and the Appalachian region of the U.S.
“My work had a foot in deep theory (systems and evolution) and another in the field — in my case, in India,” Norris-Brown writes at his website, www.cwnorrisbrown.com. “Post-doctoral work took me from India, to Borneo, to Appalachia, and to Canada where my focus was (and still is) on people of the forests and on their place in the health of the ecosystem.”
But how did such a scholar transition from academic anthropology to children’s books?
“I would like to see my work now in the autumn of my life, to contribute to the increasingly pressing need to communicate, not only to share facts but to reach into people’s hearts to understand nature and both what threatens it as well as its wonder,” Norris-Brown writes.
Painting in the tiger reserve
When he was visiting the Corbett Tiger Reserve in India in 1999 as part of an effort to develop an applied anthropology project in forest and tiger conservation, he had taken his watercolors with him to make studies of the local people.
“At one point, I asked the local people what they thought I could do to best share the message of saving the forest and the tiger,” Norris-Brown writes.
Someone suggested to him, “Why not write a children’s book?”
He instantly was hooked, and he decided to combine his art, anthropology, and concerns for the environment and to focus on writing and illustrating children’s books.
“No more academic treatises on bookshelves,” he realized. “No more competing for college posts. And I would get to do what I loved most doing: art (people and forests); taking facts and making stories from them (the writer in me that grew out of the anthropology); and finding a way to bring an important message out to as many as possible within the communities that would make a difference globally.”
He began by completing an online course with the Institute of Children’s Literature in 2005.
“I believe in the philosophy of writing: show not tell,” he explains. “Even though my book had a distinct message ... I do not want to lecture children, but to indicate its meaning through plot and pictures.”
Art as narrative
More than just though Norris-Brown’s words, Did Tiger Take the Rain? is also told by his watercolor illustrations throughout the book.
“I was an artist from a young age,” Norris-Brown writes. “I remember submitting a drawing of Mickey Mouse to Disney in sixth grade (I did not get the job).
“There is a photo of me in my high school senior yearbook doing an oil painting, hair combed back in the super cool style of the day (1964). I was an artist from grade school. In time, I would start my university career majoring in art and architecture, and, although I gave that up for social science and philosophy, I never lost contact with art.
“In the end, after taking a class or two in watercolor, and especially after retirement, I decided to focus most of my energy on art and on writing and illustrating children’s books.”
A member of the Vermont Watercolor Society, Norris-Brown has exhibited his work in juried shows, such as Vermont Watercolor Society SEABA show in June 2013 and Vermont Watercolor Society Bennington Center for the Arts show in December 2013.
“Water color can be a very unforgiving medium, and it is difficult to make revisions on them,” admits Norris-Brown. “I had a difficult time working on the watercolors for Did the Tiger take the Rain? All the illustrations are from watercolors than can be framed. There was no Photoshopping of them, except for some minor increase in color saturation in a few instances.”
Norris-Brown is discovering that since its official launch at Everyone’s Books in Brattleboro last month, Did Tiger Take the Rain? has taken on a life of its own. After so many years being his own private obsession, the book has become very public.
“People I never met come up to me telling me how they have enjoyed the book and are telling friends about it,” Norris-Brown explains, seeming surprised. “It has been really nice.”