LYNDHURST — Children’s book author and illustrator Thomas F. Yezerski got the idea for his latest book while taking a pontoon boat tour of the Meadowlands estuary in 2001.
“The [Hackensack] River was completely like glass, very still and quiet,” he said Sunday at the Meadowlands Environment Center, where 17 of the book’s ink-and-watercolor illustrations are on display.
Yezerski said he was “struck by how there could be this peaceful, beautiful place right in the middle of this populated area.” Perhaps a story about the restoration of one of the world’s most infamous and polluted wetlands would make “a good hopeful story for kids.”
It turned out he was right.
The picture book, “The Meadowlands: A Wetlands Survival Story,” was 10 years in the making — and one of the New York Times’ 10 notable children’s picture books for 2011. The New York Public Library placed it among last year’s top 25 children’s non-fiction books.
“I actually went on some kids’ field trips here at the environment center,” Yezerski said of the venue where he gave a slide presentation Sunday. During his years of research, he also read John Quinn’s “Fields of Sun and Grass” and explored the area on foot and in a canoe, taking hundreds of pictures .
“The problem was to distill it down to a 32-page picture book that kids would understand,” he said.
The book, geared for children ages 5 to 8, begins with an illustration of Lenape Indians carrying fish from the river and one with horses pulling Conestoga wagons over plank roads.
It then fast forwards to the mid-20th century and landscapes that include train tracks, highways, garbage dumps where methane fires burn, a close-up of a dragon fly with the underside of the east spur of the Turnpike in the background, and a fiddler crab’s perspective of a dented soda can on a mud flat.
“You can see a human presence in all of the pictures,” Yezerski said.
As time moves on and pollution is brought more under control, the illustrations show the remarkable signs of recovery and new populations of fish and birds that have returned.
The book is “really impressive,” said Tom Temple of Woodbridge, one of about 50 people who watched the slide show.
He and his daughter Glynne had just returned from a long walk through the Meadowlands with about 70 other bird watchers who like Yezerski, marveled at the diversity of wildlife that thrives, just miles from Times Square.
“I saw a brown creeper, an orange crowned warbler and a ruby crowned kinglet,” said Temple, an avid birder.
“For me, that’s a big deal,” he said.