The Green Book: A Core Memory

Gaze upon this copy of “The Green Book” I bought on ebay

I don’t remember what year it was. I think it was 2001, or maybe somewhere around that time. All I can remember was that I was in elementary school, and my mom was a teacher at my school. It was pretty awesome. I was at the age where having your mom as a teacher was cool instead of embarrassing. I got to hang out in her classroom before school started and watch “Little House on the Prairie” on the TV she used for rainy days. If I ran out of school supplies I could just go to her classroom and pick out extras. 

I even remember one excruciatingly embarrassing moment when I went to the bathroom, and I could not zip up the zipper of my jeans. Terrified that everyone in my class would call me a baby, I ran to her classroom, anxiously knocked on the door, and called to her. I was crying. She excused herself from her class and came outside to talk to me. Through my tears, I explained the situation to her. My zipper was stuck, and I would never recover from the mortification. She managed keep her laughter to herself and helped me with my pants. Relief washed over me like a cool breeze, and I was able to return to class. She would later tell this story to every single teacher she ever worked with. 

Though one of my strongest memories of her as a teacher was her library. She collected hundreds of children’s books for her classroom library. These books were available to all of her students to read, and I spent many mornings and afternoons in that library. Her ritual was to buy a book she’d heard about, read it in the evenings after she finished lesson planning, and then tell me all about it. Eventually, there came a time when she would have me read all the books first, let her know if they were any good, and then she would consider them for the library. But before that moment, I remember her telling me about “The Green Book.”

She told me a story of people landing on a strange planet. This new planet was vastly different from Earth. The only animals were jellyfish for lamps and the plants grew differently. When all hope of survival on this new planet seems to be lost, one of the children crushed the crystal plants into a powder, made a pancake, and ate it. The story ended when the youngest child on the planet wrote about their settlement in her green notebook. That’s why the story was called “The Green Book.”

It’s funny that this story has stayed with me for over twenty years. I still remember my mom telling me about the plants that grew like glass and the “miracle pancake” that saved humanity. I remember this story as being one of my first introductions to science fiction. I was completely enchanted by this story of a strange planet with plants like glass. I don’t know why I never read the book. She didn’t like science fiction, so it never made it into her library. She probably gave away the book, so I never could read her copy. What’s strange is I never asked for “The Green Book.” I think it may have had something to do with the powerless feeling of being a child. It never occurred to me to ask for my own copy and that my parents would have happily bought me a silly little book for Christmas or my birthday. It wasn’t there, so that meant I couldn’t have it. 

I’ve read countless science fiction stories since then. In high school, I was obsessed with Harry Harrison and “Make Room! Make Room!” I read “Logan’s Run” for the first time in freshman choir. If a book had a robot in it, then I wanted to read it. I’m still like this. In the last few years, I’ve enjoyed reading works by Ursula K. Le Guin and Carl Sagan. But no “The Green Book.”

Until a few weeks ago. 

A few weeks ago, I was thinking of weird planets when I should have been thinking about accounting. My mind drifted back to that core memory, to the story of the glass plants and the jellyfish lamps. And at that moment, it finally hit me: I’m an adult, and I can just buy the book. My mom didn’t have to do it for me. I had the power to purchase something for myself, just because I wanted it, without having to ask anyone. It was a weird feeling to have. Kind of like when I go to Target and I see Easy-Bake Ovens. I am always tempted to buy one. Then I remember that Easy Bake Ovens are garbage, and I have a literal working oven at home. But some part of me stills covets them because my eight-year-self couldn’t have one.  

She quite literally shows how terrible these ovens are for cooking, and yet I still want one so badly.

I went on eBay and did some hunting. eBay is my all-time favorite place for odds and ends, and I consider an obscure children’s science fiction book from the 1980’s as an “odds and ends.” The book arrived within a week, on a Saturday, and I did not do anything important until I had read that book from cover to cover. I pushed all of my class assignments, home chores, and social activities aside. In that hour and a half, all that existed for me was Jill Paton Walsh‘s “The Green Book.”

It was okay.

Despite having twenty years to build up my hopes, I managed to lower my expectations sufficiently before reading it. If I hadn’t done so, then I probably would have called my sister sobbing about my crushed hopes and broken dreams. But I’ve read enough science fiction to know that if a book is forgotten or obscure, it tends to be for a decent reason. So without further ado, below is my honest review of Walsh’s “The Green Book”:

In Jill Paton Walsh’s story, a group of refugees are among the last to leave a dying Earth. The wealthier refugees have already left on better ships for more promising worlds. Each passenger is allowed a single item and a single book, and any necessary farming equipment. Pattie, the youngest refugee, insists on bringing a simple, empty notebook with cream pages and a green cover. The colonizers travel through space for four years before descending on the planet they name “Shine.” The planet is strange and beautiful, and the colonizers must work together to create a home for themselves. They test the water, plant their crops, and search the planet for other signs of life, finding none. The trees on this planet are like iron and cannot be cut in half, only split, so the colonizers have to think of a way to make homes. There aren’t enough books, so people fight over the few books available. Then children find candy trees and mysterious, growing boulders, which hatch into giant moth people. The humans and the moth people cannot communicate, but they live and dance together for a few days before the moth’s life cycle completes. There is no food, and the plants are growing like strange, brittle glass. The colonizers fear that they will starve to death and plan to take their emergency suicide pills, but the children are not ready to give up just yet. The family’s oldest daughter smashes the glass wheat between two rocks, creates a dough, bakes it, and survives. There is now food and hope is restored. The story ends when the colonizers want to see Pattie’s notebook and find that the book is full of the story of the planet. They all settle in to read, and this is how the people of Shine end their tale – by reading about their beginning. 

Walsh’s paints a beautiful, mysterious world that hovers on the edge of terrifying. The world of Shine is sometimes wonderful. There is hope, joy, and love. Each success on the planet revitalizes the people and spurs them on to take on new challenges. Even the strange story of the moth people is lovely in its own way. The colonizers realize that they’re not the only people on this planet, that they never were, and they’re thrilled to encounter this new species. The days that the moth people are alive are filled with magic and delight. Then the moth people all day, and the colonizers eat them, and that’s a little weird, but hey, they had no food, so it’s really not my place to judge. And the whole “there’s no food” thing fills the story with constant, eerie tension. To arrive on a new planet, think it’s hospitable, only to learn that it’s barren, is a terror I can only imagine.  

The part of the book that drags is the weird subplot about being bored and not having enough books to read. As Walsh published this book in the early 1980s, it’s fair that she didn’t know about kindles or digital libraries. What I do struggle to believe is that the people on this ship never thought to form a basic library before they left for the new planet. Three different people bring “Robinson Crusoe” to the new world. You’re doing to tell me that no one thought to form a phone tree to make sure that didn’t happen? And apparently, there was no difference in someone bringing “The Complete Works of Shakespeare” versus a random pony story, even though those books are entirely different in mass. Sure, okay. I guess I can accept that. But then the book ended somewhat abruptly, and I found myself wanting more. Was the community of Shine going to subsist entirely on glass bread and the occasional moth wing? I guess so, but maybe by asking that question, I’m missing the point. 

I think this book’s biggest strength is that the children are the hope of this new community. The children are the ones with the clever ideas and the adventuring spirits. Their discoveries are vital to the longevity of the community on Shine. Pattie’s willingness to sacrifice a story of their old world to start the story of their new world shows that life will continue. I do think there’s a lesson in that.

Some reviewers of “The Green Book” were put off by the scientific inaccuracies within the story. I think that any science fiction story, except maybe those written by Carl Sagan or Andy Weir, will be full of obnoxious inaccuracies. I have a degree in biology, but I don’t get upset when I see some silly science in Star Trek. That’s part of the fun of science fiction: the possibility that beyond planet Earth there are worlds full of phenomena we can only begin to imagine. I think that if a planet can rain diamonds, it’s not that strange to imagine a planet that grows plants made of glass. 

Do I think “The Green Book” is good enough for a movie adaption? No, I don’t. The story is uneven, and a little weird, and probably could have benefited from a better plot point than “no one thought to bring a book other than Robinson Crusoe.” This is a shame because there are some fascinating ideas within “The Green Book”, and I think a film about a colony struggling to survive on a strange planet, told from a child’s perspective, could be incredible and moving. I just don’t think it needs to be this exact story. 

Does this book hold up to the story my mom told me? Well, no, not really. Although it was remarkably similar to the summary she told me, even after all this time (sans the moth people), my joy came from owning and being able to read the book rather than the story. I held a piece of my childhood, a core memory, in my hands, and it was as real to me as that moment all those years ago. I’m glad I bought this book, and I’m glad that I read it. After I finished it, I gave the used paper book to my dad and encouraged him to read it. I told him that my mom was the reason I knew about “The Green Book” and how the story had always been at the back of my mind. He’s now reading it.

My mom passed away several years ago, and despite all the time that has passed, my dad, my sister, and I still find ourselves doing little things to remind us of her. We’ll make the cookies she liked or set out decorations she loved to feel closer to her. So, a few weeks ago, I searched for this book online, purchased it, and read it. And now, when I think of “The Green Book,” I will always think of that moment with her, transfixed, as she told me the story of the glass plants and the jellyfish lamps.

If you’re curious to read the book yourself, you can check out a copy at your local library, or purchase a copy.  Some kind Samaritan even went to the trouble of recording an audio version of the book.

Give it a listen here!

4 thoughts on “The Green Book: A Core Memory

  1. What a thoughtful piece! It is incredible how these random moments and stories from our childhood stay with us through life. They can still bring us so much joy and nostalgia!

    Personally I don’t think I’ve ever heard about The Green Book, however I remember her reading Hatchet and Witches to my class. I still vividly remember her story time and how she was so good at getting into character. I wasn’t big into reading, but she made it enjoyable and entertaining.

    I think it’s always nice to take a moment now to appreciate these stories, books, accessories, recipes, etc that our loved ones showed us- it keeps their presence alive and reminds me that we’re still connected.

    Thank you for sharing your work! It is well written and has a nice message that we should all be reminded of!

    Like

    1. Her love for “Hatchet” was definitely contagious! I thought it was nice how these moments, which probably meant very little too her, stayed with us for the rest of our lives. Like there’s always a part of her with us.

      Like

  2. I love the story about the zipper, and I will remind you of this story till the end of time. Such a sweet article although I am concerned about The Green Book being a children’s book if they are talking about dying, but hey… I read the Series of Unfortunate Events and worse things happened there.

    Like

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