Kids’ Books Can Relay Great Messages About the Natural World—Provided They Don’t Lose Sight of the Story
Books are my favorite gifts to give, especially to children. Books rarely end up in the trash, as myriad toys will. They are interactive—a story shared between reader and reader-to-be; a young person immersing themselves in fictitious and real-life stories, empathizing and rooting against and forming relationships with characters. For several years, first as a magazine editor and now as a freelance writer, I’ve been privy to advanced reader’s copies of both picture and chapter books for young readers. There’s been a definite trend in environmentally themed titles, which isn’t news to anyone; with the mainstreaming of all things green, of course publishers responded in course, even establishing eco-imprints. And many of them are—dare I say it?—terrible, not to mention any by name. (OK, one: Adventures of an Aluminum Can. The can is anthropormorphized, then crushed, then happy to be crushed … it’s cool to see what a can’s lifecycle might be, but the storyline is confusing and gets buried in a landfill of lessons. )
Bottom line: Kids want a tale, not a talking-to. Here are some recent and classic picture books that inspire conversations and curiosity for readers and read-alouders alike.
One person’s trash is another person’s (or bug’s) dwelling, and the characters in these two books—the first fiction (we presume, but can’t know for sure), the other non—live it up while building living spaces from found objects. Snug House, Bug House! is a great read-aloud for babies and up, and a fun early reader with its repetitive rhyming structure. A bunch of bugs—all distinct from one another: Spot the ladybug and Dot the flea, a hirsute butterfly and a wide-eyed centipede with a bouffant hair-do—beholds a tennis ball and collaborates in its renovation. They draw up plans, pour a foundation, and furnish the spherical abode with the best finds around—a credit card-as-workbench and a bed frame made of pencil nubs. They each have their own rooms, but the shared spaces are so much more fun—a Sound Room for music jams, a Crazy Room for acrobatics, and what round house would be complete without a carousel?
Some people go to Ikea when they need cheap storage for their stuff; Tressa “Grandma” Prisbrey went to the dump. Bottle Houses: The Creative World of Grandma Prisbrey is based on the true story of a woman who built first a house, then a compound, out of bottles. A bonus: There are photos in the back of the book of the real Bottle Village in Simi Valley, CA.
From the end-page illustrations of a 1940s kitchen (complete with Hoosier cabinet) to the delightful story about both human and bear mother-and-child pairs picking wild blueberries, the classic Blueberries for Sal by Robert McCloskey is an idyllic depiction of collecting and canning. It’s a lovely reminder of a time before ever-available imported produce and an inspiration to break out the Ball jars.
Self-Sufficiency/Small Houses/Simple Living
Miss Suzy is a little gray squirrel who lives in a house slightly larger than herself in the “tip, tip top of a tall oak tree.” Her broom is made from twigs, her cups from acorns, and her lamps are lit, of course, by fireflies. When she is temporarily displaced, she seeks refuge in a vacant dollhouse in a vacant person house, claiming it as her own—gold chandeliers, real china dishes and all—after a thorough dusting. Alas, the expanse and opulence just don’t hold a lightning-bug lamp to her old cozy abode, to which she is able to return at book’s end.
Coral Reefs is the new release from Redwoods author Jason Chin, whose contrasting combo of fantastical illustrations and just-the-facts writing works some kind of right-brain/left-brain wonder on his readers. At first I thought it would be too advanced for my four-year-old. The text is lengthy and seems more appropriate for middle school than grades K-4, its recommended readership. Yet the watercolor pictures are captivating, showing a child reading this same book, which she’s just pulled from a library shelf … and soon the library is below sea level, the stacks and study tables giving way to all varieties of coral and the extraordinary “aquatic cities” they build. The inside covers feature pencil drawings (along with the names and dimensions) of 60 coral reef residents for a bonus activity of matching these to the full-color counterparts within the book’s pages. Not only did Coral Reefs hold my kid’s interest, but it has also added “fairy basslet,” “orange elephant ear sponge” and “warty sea rod” to our vocabularies.
Edwina: The Dinosaur Who Didn’t Know She Was Extinct by Mo Willems and I Am Dodo by Kae Nishimura.
Here’s the chance to talk about a bleak topic with books that are anything but. Edwina wears pearls and bakes chocolate chip cookies and doesn’t know (or, as it turns out, care) that she’s extinct, no matter how enthusiastically her nemesis Reginald tries to convince her otherwise. Dodo lives in Manhattan, a great place for a dodo to live, due to the abundance of food and the self-absorption of its human inhabitants, who are too busy to notice him, even while he does his distinctive dodo dance. However, an elderly professor as intent on proving the existence of dodos as Edwina’s Reginald is of the opposite, does take an interest, and a citywide game of hide-and-seek (with breaks to boogie down under streetlights) ensues.
Actual Size and Never Smile at a Monkey are my family’s personal favorites, but any of the 20+ stellar and science-steeped titles from Steve Jenkins (some with Robin Page), all illustrated with his signature torn-paper collages, are a welcome return to reality after standard kid-lit fare of pigs in overalls and bunnies in tutus. Winsome depictions (the tiny tailorbird who uses her sharp beak to sew herself a nest out of a leaf, a spider’s web for thread) alternate with awesome creepy facts (wasps that lay eggs, fatally, in caterpillar hosts; the Surinam toad who carries her eggs—and for a few months, tadpoles—in pits in the skin of her back; the gruesomly efficient ways whelks and sea stars turn clams into dinner) that might have your little ones educating, and startling, their teachers.
Bats at the Beach is the first of three fantastic titles by Brian Lies that imagine these oft-maligned mammals as the social and generally gentle critters they are (Bats at the Library and Bats at the Ballgame are equally good). The nocturnal beachgoers descend with picnic baskets, sand pails and umbrellas (the kind found in fruity drinks) in tow. Fruit bats lug a cooler of cherries; insectivores toast bug-mallows and munch moths on the snack bar ceiling. This is a bedtime favorite, with brilliant illustrations that are dusky and illuminated as if by actual moonlight, and clever rhymes that lilt and lull.
Local Food/Seasonal Living
Nikki McClure’s cut-paper illustrations—each one a continuous carving done with an x-acto knife— continue to amaze. Mama, Is It Summer Yet? will especially resonate as winter wears on, encouraging patience and appreciation of the current season’s offerings while anticipating the literal fruits of summer. McClure’s latest offering is To Market, To Market, a thank-you letter in picture book form to the growers and artisans of the farmers’ market. The book culminates with a glorious feast and closing words that read like grace: “We remember all the people and all the creatures who worked to make this feast. Thank you for the sustenance.”