Squirrel and John Muir

Giverney Award for science writing

Caldecott Medalist McCully again successfully creates a narrative that pairs a rambunctious girl character with a fascinating historical figure. This inventive tale brings the personage of naturalist John Muir to life. In 1868, James Hutchings began a tourist business in the beautiful Yosemite Valley in 1868, and his daughter Floy was the first white child born in the valley. At six, her wild behavior of tearing around the valley, balancing on the woodpile plank, and capturing frogs earned her the nickname Squirrel. When John Muir arrived at Hutchings’s hotel seeking both work and knowledge about the natural world, Floy became his shadow, entranced by the wonders of nature that he showed her. The ending has Muir moving on but sharing his special place in the mountains, with her. McCully’s familiar watercolors beautifully capture the scenery while the simple text conveys the bond between the unlikely pair. A two-page author’s note provides historical background (Floy died tragically). A lovely tribute to the gentle genius of the Sierras that gives dimension to the man and respect to his name.

McCully (Mirette on the High Wire ) uses history and biography as a springboard to a story about how naturalist and writer John Muir befriended a child who shared his love of the outdoors. In 1868 (according to the author’s note), James Hutchings and his family are making a go of a hotel business and of leading guided tours in the Yosemite Valley. The oldest Hutchings child, a spirited girl nicknamed Squirrel (so-called for her tendency to dart about), continually tries the patience of her parents and the hotel guests. But when Muir arrives one day, looking for work, Squirrel has more than met her match. In between his chores, he studies the landscape hoping to prove his theory of glacial formation. He also luxuriates in the area’s natural wonders, encouraging Squirrel to do the same. McCully portrays Muir’s breakthrough—when he is able to prove his ideas to be scientifically sound—as the natural progression of his daily observations. His forays into the wild, shown through Floy’s perspective, seem like simple hikes but add up to a larger purpose. When Muir earns a following, an angry Hutchings asks the man to go, but not before he leaves Squirrel (and readers) with a parting gift. McCully again cultivates the seeds of fact into a vivid imagining of what might have been. She creates instantly memorable characters in the spunky tomboy Squirrel—replete with petulant poses and facial expressions—and young-at-heart Muir. And Yosemite, in its unspoiled glory, comes alive via McCully’s sun-dappled watercolor scenes, lush with green trees and dusty rock faces alongside swift moving rivers and white splashes of waterfall.

Publishers Weekly

“Once again, the creator of the Caldecott Medal winner Mirette on the High Wire (1992) makes a wild, small girl the center of stirring picture-book historical fiction. Floy “Squirrel” Hutchings, six, has always lived in the Yosemite Valley. In 1868, when John Muir finds a job in the hotel owned by Floy’s father, the fierce, lonely kid defies the newcomer. But Muir’s love for the natural world is contagious, and soon he’s teaching Floy how to look closely at the rocks, trails, animals, birds, and plants around her. McCully’s beautiful, double-page watercolor landscapes, many in strong shades of green and brown, show and tell how the great conservationist helps Squirrel discover the amazing world where she lives, from the tiniest ant to the towering mountains and valleys formed by glaciers. In an afterword, McCully talks about Muir’s later work (he helped create Yosemite National Park and founded the Sierra Club) and about Floy’s short life. The contrast between the child’s “glowering loneliness” and the rich solitude she finds in nature will move young wilderness lovers profoundly. A bibliography is appended.”