The Billings Outpost

Montana author makes botany understandable

“Shanleya’s Quest,” by Thomas J. Elpel. Hops Press. Hardcover, 32 pages.


Myths and fairy tales are a founding element of the body of work that makes up children’s literature. If there remains any doubt that myth “supplies models for human behavior and by that very fact, gives meaning and value to life,” (Mircea Eliade from 1963’s “Myth and Reality”) our continued reliance on them for conveying values to our children through popular, colorful picture book retellings should dispel it. 

Following in that ancient story telling tradition, a widely respected Montana author, publisher and expert on all things outdoors, Thomas J. Elpel, created “Shanleya’s Quest.” Subtitled, “A Botany Adventure for Kids Ages 9 to 99,” it is a creation story and fairly tale with an excellent and memorable botany lesson at its core. 

At the request of a group of grandchildren whom we meet in its opening pages, Shanleya’s tale is told by a grandmother who we find out at the end was Shanleya’s granddaughter. We are first regaled with a lovely story of the origins of life itself – with an emphasis on plant life in particular.

Then we join Shanleya on a journey she makes at her grandfather’s behest. She is told to learn the secrets of the plants and sets out to do so with a map and a canoe within the mythical world she inhabits. Along the way we learn the fundamental characteristics of eight plant families with her. Shanleya’s quest is ultimately successful, and both she and we are the richer for it.

Illustrations are by Gloria Brown, and they are colorful and interesting, particularly her depictions of the origins of life.

Author Elpel is the founder of Hops Press, based in Pony. His catalog is centered on survival, primitive living and do-it-yourself topics, but his claim to wider fame is his groundbreaking plant pattern identification method first debuted in his botany classic, “Botany In a Day,” now slated to go into its fifth printing.

“Shanleya’s Quest” is a summary of the fundamentals that Elpel explores in greater detail in “Botany in a Day,” and it is a wonderful approach to presenting the information to a wide variety of audiences, allowing them to get their feet wet before they jump into the deeper pool of “Botany In a Day.”

Of course, “Botany in a Day” is a superb and accessible introduction – for all levels – to botany as well. It, too, has the effect of leading people further into what might otherwise seem like a dauntingly complicated and somewhat arcane field of study.

If that’s not enough, “Shanleya’s Quest” also has supplementary materials! A deck of playing cards with five games described in the printed insert. The card faces have color photos of plants as well as drawing of plant family characteristics, and are intended to entertain while testing reader’s skills at identifying the plant family patterns and honing recognition skills.

Hops Press publishes another young person’s book called “I’m a Medicine Woman Too!” that is written and illustrated by Jesse Wolf Hardin. It has similarly empowering themes, but more philosophically than practically oriented.

I am a huge fan of Elpel’s approach to botany, and was excited to learn of and then read “Shanleya’s Quest” and its deck of cards. This book is imaginative, thoughtful, practical and memorable. I highly recommend it, particularly to parents who enjoy fostering both creativity and independence in their children, and who see the unequaled value of becoming an active, knowledgeable participant in our amazing – and mysterious – natural world.

For more information about Shanleya’s Quest and all of Elpel’s publications, see


Copyright 2012 Wild Raspberry Inc.

Top Desktop version