Monday, April 5, 2010

Bag in the Wind

By Ted Kooser, illustrated by Barry Root

Candlewick Press, 2010

$17.99, ages 4-8, 48 pages

Pulitzer Prize winner Kooser delivers a quietly powerful tale of a plastic bag unearthed in a landfill that speaks to all the forgotten trash that's slow to decompose.

When a tractor turning a pile of garbage frees a plastic bag from the dump, the bag is swept over a fence, into a tree, then pecked loose by a blackbird, only to become lodged on a barbed-wire fence, where it's found by a girl looking for a bag to collect aluminum cans.

Thus begins a fascinating and eye-opening journey that will inspire readers to reuse plastic bags and eventually stop using them altogether. At story's end, readers learn that it can take 15 years to 1,000 for one bag to break down -- a sobering statistic given that the average American uses at least 350 per year.

A synopsis of the book on the inside flap describes the story as "full of happenstance and connection, neglect and conservation," and echoes the book's power: Kooser doesn't try to tell readers what they should do. He sort of nudges them to think about all of the plastic bags that have nowhere to go and what they might do to change it.

Best Parts: Kooser's words drift along, gently telling the bag's tale, and blend so beautifully with the softness of Root's images that I came away feeling as though I had read a wordless picture book, though the narrative isn't particularly spare.

At times Root's images of the runaway bag were so familiar, they were almost uncomfortable to look at. Who hasn't seen a bag tumble along a ditch, get flattened against a fence or get caught up in a branch? But how many of us go chasing after it? We may be accustomed to seeing a bag on the loose, but do we stop our cars to deal with it?

I was particularly struck by the image of a plastic bag being spit out by the tires of a passing vehicle, which seems to me like the ultimate indignity of paying no mind to trash on the road. I found myself humming the sobering melody to Kansas's Dust in the Wind -- but thinking that a bag in the wind doesn't have to be an old song we've heard before.

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