Children's Books About Ecology And Environmentalism
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"Belonging"
Written by Jeannie Baker
Illustrated by Jeannie Baker
(Walker Books, 2004)

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"Window"
Written by Jeannie Baker
Illustrated by Jeannie Baker
(Greenwillow, 1991)

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"The Story Of Rosy Dock"
Written by Jeannie Baker
Illustrated by Jeannie Baker
(Greenwillow, 1995)

Another beautifully illustrated, ecologically-themed photo-collage picturebook from Australian author Jeannie Baker. This one focusses on the desert habitat around the Finke River, in central Australia, an area that is usually drought-stricken, but has sudden torrential rains that explosively bring the sands into full bloom... Baker vividly shows the cycles of desert life, and how various plants and animals adapt to the forboding climate. The "rosy dock" of the title refers to a red-petaled flower that a European immigrant introduced into the Outback; it flourished and now covers much of the desert, blooming wildly when the rains come. Oddly enough, Baker only describes how the red flowers burst into bloom, but she doesn't make clear that they are an invasive species that is crowding out the native plants, at least not in the main story. There is an endnote text that talks about the ecological issues, but if you just read the picture part of the book, you might think it was a good thing. Even though the underlying issues are a bit fuzzy, the book does a great job showing the life cycles of the desert -- her artwork, as always, is captivating and intensely detailed. (B)


"Home In The Sky"
Written by Jeannie Baker
Illustrated by Jeannie Baker
(Greenwillow, 1984)

A pigeon in New York City flies the coop and goes astray for a couple of days. A boy finds the bird in a subway car and brings him to his apartment, but his mother convinces him to let the bird go, since it is obviously tame and has a home. The bird makes it home safely, and rejoins his old flock. The story might not resonate with everyone, but Baker -- with her usual visual aplomb -- creates an intimate vision of New York in all its dingy glory. Cool collages. (B-)


"Where The Forest Meets The Sea"
Written by Jeannie Baker
Illustrated by Jeannie Baker
(Greenwillow, 1987)

A boy and his father boat into a secluded cove on Australia's Eastern shore (on the edge of the Daintree Rainforest) and spend the day on the edge of pure, wild Nature. The boy goes off by himself and imagines a world of dinosaurs and crocodiles, primordial life not much distant from what is still there before him. In the book's final pages, however, he has a vision of the rugged beach covered with condos and hotels, chopped up and contoured by capitalism. The message is hardly subtle, but then again, neither is the commercial development of practically the entire Pacific Basin. Baker's visual style is stunning: her collages of the giant tree trunks seem fully three-dimensional and practically leap off the pages. A sumptuous downer, definitely worth checking out for any kids who are pondering ecological issues. (B)


"The Hidden Forest"
Written by Jeannie Baker
Illustrated by Jeannie Baker
(Greenwillow, 2000)

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"The Little House"
Written by Virginia Lee Burton
Illustrated by Virginia Lee Burton
(Houghton Mifflin, 1942)

A powerful, visually appealing story of a little country farmhouse that gets slowly engulfed, year by year, by the encroachment of a nearby booming metropolis. Eventually, the house is left derelict in a seedy neighborhood and is about to be demolished so something shiny and new can be built, when someone comes along who recognizes its beauty and saves it from the wrecking ball. I remember this book making a big impression on me when I was a little kid... It's a great story, artfully told and with a complex, multilayered narrative. Also a message that's close to my heart (perhaps in part to how moved I was by the story when I was young...) When I rediscovered it as a parent, though, I realized just how crushingly sad it is. In dramatic terms, this is an remorseless tragedy, with page after page of ratcheting sadness, only bringing the happy ending at the very end. It's a powerful critique of the changes that 20th Century moderization and urban sprawl brought to America, and the device of personalizing these changes in the form of an anthropomorphized little cottage was a canny move on Burton's part. Still, it's a story that's pitched at sensitive kids, and those very kids may have a hard time dealing with it until they are ready: my kid, who enjoyed Katy and Mike Mulligan almost burst into tears when we read this one... I guess we might need to wait a few years to try it again! Still, this is one of the best environmentalist stories ever written for kids, right up there with Dr. Seuss's The Lorax. Highly recommended. (A)


"A Grand Old Tree"
Written by Mary Newell DePalma
Illustrated by Mary Newell DePalma
(Scholastic/Arthur A. Levine, 2005)

My kid really hates nature books, but I keep trying them out on her... This is one of the best. It's also a circle-of-life book, and one that doesn't shy away from the dying part of the equation. An old mulberry tree stands out in a field, and provides shelter and shade for all kinds of critters and birds, as gently reflected in the sparse, simple artwork. Birds and other animals feast in the fruit and poop the seeds out all across the landscape, causing saplings to sprout nearby. One day, though, the tree falls over and dies, but even then, as it decomposes, it provides shelter and nutrients for the ecosystem around it. An accurate ecology lesson, and also a good, gentle opener for any discussions about death and dying, if you're ready to have "that talk" with your kids. (B)


"You're Aboard Spaceship Earth"
Written by Patricia Lauber
Illustrated by Holly Keller
(Harper Collins, 1996)

The message is simple: just like the astronauts aboard the space shuttle, we live in a contained environment and we have to manage our resources well. Many examples are given, and may build on science lessons that have already been explored: the water cycle of evaporation and condensation; the oxygen/carbon dioxide cycle; the life/death, ashes-to-ashes cycle (which is tied to a lesson on home composting) and of course, a glimpse of the shuttle itself, orbiting this little sphere of ours... Good book for discussing basic conservation ideas. (B)


"Turtle Bay"
Written by Saviour Pirotta
Illustrated by Nilesh Mistry
(Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 1997)

A nice nature-loving story about a young boy who hangs out with an old man who teaches him respect for the sea and the animals that live in it. The other kids think old Jiro-San is a kook, but Taro and his sister help him pick trash up off the beach, in preparation for his "friends" making their return. It turns out Jiro-San's friends are a flock of sea turtles who come to the beach to lay their eggs, and the children not only get to see the magical egg-laying and hatching rituals, they help make them possible. (The book leaves unexplained how the eggs survive the depredations of the other beachgoers, who keep leaving trash on the beach, and presumably are tromping over the eggs nests the whole time...) A nice environmentalist narrative that evokes the wonder of nature and of this mystical ritual of reptilian rebirth. Probably best for slightly older kids, but smaller readers might like it as well. (B)


"The Lorax"
Written by Dr. Seuss
Illustrated by Dr. Seuss
(Random House, 1971)

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