May 2nd marked the beginning of National Wildflower Week. What better time to read about Lady Bird Johnson, the First Lady who brought us the Highway Beautification Act and the National Wildflower Research Center in Austin, Texas. “Miss Lady Bird’s Wildflowers” by Kathi Appelt and illustrated by Joy Fisher Hein is a vibrant and inspiring introduction to this remarkable woman who is still revered in her home state of Texas for the work she did to raise the profile of wildflowers and to help spread their natural beauty along the sides of highways across the country.
Having lived in Texas for over thirty years, I am embarrassed to admit that I didn’t previously know much about Lady Bird Johnson. I had been told at some point that she was responsible for the bluebonnet patches that blanket the highway medians around the state, and I had the sense that she had somehow achieved saint-like stature…but I really didn’t know any details. So, today’s book was particularly valuable for me if for no other reason than to fill in a woefully lacking gap in my (Texas) cultural literacy!
Ms. Appelt began by telling us about Lady Bird’s lonely childhood in East Texas, and how she found solace after the death of her mother in the wildflower meadows, piney woods, and dark bayous around her home. As a congressman’s wife in Washington DC many years later, Lady Bird was troubled by the lack of natural beauty she saw around the city, and the idea of children growing up surrounded only by concrete and asphalt. Following the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963, in her new role as First Lady she sought to the help the country heal by working to promote the planting of flowers and trees around Washington DC, and by pushing for the passage of the Highway Beautification Act – which cleaned up the sides of highways around the country, replacing billboards and rusted cars with wildflowers. When she turned 70, she helped to establish the National Wildflower Research Center south of Austin, Texas to study uses for wildflowers and to preserve seeds of endangered varieties.
The book fills in a number of other details of Lady Bird’s life, including her storybook romance with Lyndon Johnson, with accessible language that avoids becoming a “laundry list” of events and accomplishments. Ms. Appelt also sprinkles the story with well-placed quotations from Lady Bird herself – giving some insight into the soul of this champion of wildflowers. Meanwhile, Ms. Hein’s illustrations help the reader to appreciate the beauty that Lady Bird saw in the wildflowers, woods, bayous, and hills of her home state.
“Miss Lady Bird’s Wildflowers” is a beautiful book and an apt tribute to our 38th First Lady. Next time I pull around a bend in the road and my breath is taken away by a field full of bluebonnets, I’ll remember to thank her.