illustrated by Christina Wald
Camas & Sage is really almost two books in one. The picture book story tells of a lead bison cow named Sage who gives birth to a calf she names Camas. The story follows Camas through her first year of life, from taking her first steps and nursing to following her mother as she leads the herd to find fresh food and water. She learns how to play with the other calves as the adults in the herd position themselves carefully to be aware of predators. The herd braves spring rainstorms and encounters humans at campsites and prairie dogs in the fields. In the summer, Camas learns to protect herself from insects by roaming to higher ridgetops where the wind keeps the bugs at bay, and rolling in the dirt to relieve their itching skin. In late summer, the rut begins, and bulls join the herd, battling each other with their foreheads for the right to mate with the cows. Camas follows her mother as she leaves the herd to mate, and learns to depend more on grass for nourishment as Sage starts to wean her during pregnancy. The cows and calves grow extra fur to protect them from Montana's harsh winters and plow through the snow to find fresh grass to eat. By the time spring arrives, the calves (now yearlings) are becoming more independent, and Camas prepares to take on a leadership role in the herd as her mother gives birth to another calf.
An introduction and extensive sidebars on nearly every page of the book provide detailed historical and scientific information (and illustrations) about bison life on the prairie. Some of the most interesting tidbits of information are contained in these sidebars: Before the arrival of white settlers in North America, a herd of bison “could be twenty miles wide and more than fifty miles long and take days to pass by.” And while “there were thirty to sixty million bison in North America […] in the 1700s, by 1900, only 23 wild bison were left...” Today, Yellowstone National Park is home to approximately five thousand bison. Sidebars also provide more information about the relationship between bison and Native Americans, bison biology and physiology, predators, prairie plants, climate, and other prairie wildlife.
While this additional information will fascinate older children and offer plenty of information for parents and guardians to answer most of the questions that their younger children may have about the picture book story, the text of the sidebars often runs longer than the text of the story of Camas & Sage itself, and distracts from the story (as well as repeating some information) if read in conjunction with it.
I enjoyed the story of Camas & Sage more when I read through it a second time, ignoring the sidebars and focusing instead on the story narrative (which still provided a lot of factual information about bison) and colorful illustrations by Christina Wald. The book was funded, in part, by the John and Kelly Hartman Foundation and promotes the work of the American Prairie Reserve whose mission is “to create and manage a prairie-based wildlife reserve that, when combined with public lands already devoted to wildlife, will protect a unique natural habitat, provide lasting economic benefits, and improve public access to and enjoyment of the prairie landscape.”
Dorothy Hinshaw Patent has devoted her career to writing nonfiction for children. She is a longtime Montana resident with a PhD in zoology. Dr. Patent has received many awards for her work including the Washington Post-Children's Book Guild Nonfiction Award and the Orbis Pictus Honor Book Award.
Christina Wald has done illustration for a wide variety of games, books, and magazines. She illustrated The Wild Life of Elk also by Mountain Press. She lives in Cincinnati, Ohio.