Wildheart: The Daring Adventures of John Muir

This graphic tribute to John Muir was originally published in 2014 in Great Britain. The current edition was revised and published in North America in 2019 by the Yosemite Conservancy.

Bertagna narrates John Muir’s life as a young boy in Dunbar, Scotland, where his preference for exploring outdoors to learning in school was frowned upon. After his family emigrated to Wisconsin, John had a brief idyllic time period when he explored the natural world before settling down to the back-breaking labor of a frontier farm. As a young man, he became an inventor and, for a time, left the natural world to live in the bustling world of factories and cities. However, when an accident temporarily blinded him, he had an epiphany and determined to return to his dream of exploring the world.

He walked a thousand miles across the United States, traveled to far-away countries, and then explored the great mountains of the Yosemite. For a time, he ran a fruit farm with his wife and daughter but soon grew restless and returned to the wilderness. As an old man he continued his explorations, meeting with President Theodore Roosevelt to convince him to preserve the few remaining wild places as parks and even in his old age continued exploring, writing about, and fighting for the wilderness. The book ends with a chronology of John Muir’s life, glossary, and some sources for quotes.

Goldsmith’s art flows across the pages, shifting hues from chapter to chapter to mark the changes in Muir’s life. Dunbar is all grays and browns, the gloomy hues of the city matching John’s frustration at being trapped inside. When they arrive in Wisconsin, the world explodes in green dotted with yellow and orange. These colors darken to red as John spends time in factories and suffers his accident. The glaciers and mountains are cold, clear blues. The art style is loose and looks like sketches from a nature journal, showing plenty of action and humor as John moves across the pages. However, there’s also a sameness to the art; it’s hard to tell the difference between the majesty of the Yosemite and the green forests of John’s Wisconsin home. Although the book is meant to celebrate those wild places John Muir championed, there are actually few images of them and none of them are detailed enough to be identifiable.

The focus of the book is on John Muir’s life and legacy and a graphic biography has little space for additional details. However, there are major oversights in the book. No mention is made of indigenous inhabitants of the places John visited and promoted as national parks, primarily for white people from the cities to visit. Muir’s interactions with Roosevelt, especially their camping trip, make it sound as though it was a solo effort by the two men. There is no mention of the later efforts of a wide variety of people to establish the National Park Service. In short, the book has little context of the historical period, contenting itself with inspirational quotes and scenes from John Muir’s life.

This would make a good additional text for students studying the time period or the early days of conservation, but it does not stand alone. For a full understanding of John Muir and the preservation of wilderness, even younger readers need additional titles to get a more complete picture. Pair with picture books like Mountain Chef by Annette Pimentel, stories of the later history of the national parks like Fighting for the Forest by P. Pearson, or use resources from the Untold Stories project to make sure readers see national parks and the preservation of wilderness from multiple perspectives.

Wildheart: The daring adventures of John Muir
By Julie Bertagna
Art by William Goldsmith
ISBN: 9781930238947
Yosemite Conservancy, 2019
NFNT Age Recommendation: Middle Grade (7-11)