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“Great Piece of Turf” watercolor by Albrecht Durer

In celebration of Earth Day, 2017…

Out of School and Into Nature: The Anna Comstock Story, written by Suzanne Slade, illustrated by Jessica Lanan
published in 2017 by Sleeping Bear Press

When I was homeschooling my children, a fat, black book sat on our shelves ready to grab and consult about some new natural wonder happened upon. What are all those parts of a bee for? What do flickers eat? What wildflower is this, spreading like a white carpet in the springtime woods?

That book was Handbook of Nature Study. At almost 1000 pages, it expounds copious amounts of technical information, lyrically celebrates the world of nature, and proffers many more questions to ponder and explore than it even answers.

That masterpiece was written by Anna Botsford Comstock, “the mother of nature education” who in the 1800s realized the appalling lack of nature knowledge in our nation’s children and developed a model program at Cornell University, teaching nature-study to teachers.

This elegant biography of her life begins with her childhood delight in nature — a common theme for those who pursue environmental care so get your kids out-of-doors! — and follows her lifetime making important contributions to nature education, a critical piece of our children’s education that is still, sadly, endangered.

Gorgeous, sun-soaked illustration work by Jessica Lanan fills us with the joy of stars and doodlebugs, snowflakes and tadpoles, just like Anna. I love that Comstock’s work is heralded in this fabulous piece of nonfiction for ages 4 and up.

Trees, written and illustrated by Lemniscates
published in Spain in 2016; first U.S. edition 2017 by Candlewick Studio

The blessing and wonder of trees is pondered and appreciated in tranquil text and dynamic, stylish illustrations in this gem coming to us from Spain.

It is more like my beloved A Tree is Nice than anything I’ve seen since that classic appeared in 1956.

Observing how trees live and grow, reflecting about the good things trees do for us, Lemniscates provides a lovely conversational text to give us pause, stir up rich thoughts, effect gratitude for trees. 

Her artwork as always soars with vitality and a lovely contemporary European vibe. A delight for ages 3 and up.

The Wolves Return: A New Beginning for Yellowstone National Park, written and illustrated by Celia Godkin
published in 2017 by Pajama Press

 As one species after another enters endangered categories it is impossible for most of us to see what the ramifications of their loss will be, making it far too easy to dismiss as “just a turtle” or “just an agave plant.”

Yet the complex, interactive webs which rely on biodiversity are critical to a healthy planet and to our health as humans. Some species are keystones — kind of like the jenga block on the bottom of the pile. If we pull them out, a ripple effect occurs that damages an entire ecosystem. Such was the case with the wolves of Yellowstone.

By hunting those wolves to the point of near-extinction settlers unwittingly disturbed the timeworn balance that had allowed all sorts of plants, animals and waterways to flourish. This lovely book shows how each piece began to be renewed as wolves were re-introduced to Yellowstone beginning in 1995.

Each turn of the page shows another glory of nature able to perform again its vivid song, as the positive, un-domino effect takes place. What a hopeful, gladsome journey! Share this with children ages 4 and up.

Rivers of Sunlight: How the Sun Moves Water Around the Earth, written by Molly Bang and Penny Chisholm, illustrated by Molly Bang
published in 2017 by Blue Sky Press

This is the fifth book in this outstanding series about sunlight which I highly recommend from start to finish. Thus far we have learned how we transform sunlight into electricity, how plants use sunlight to make food, how the sun’s light sustains life in our oceans, and how fossil fuels are sunlight trapped under the Earth’s surface. What an awesome collection!

In this installment we investigate Earth’s precious, life-sustaining water and how sunlight moves it through its critical water cycle. Molly Bang and Penny Chisholm are word-wizards and illustration-magicians who make all of this as enticing as a juicy slice of watermelon. Your children — and you — will grasp the mechanisms of the water cycle in a way that fills you with wonder…

…and spills over into keen awareness of the gift that water is and the massive harm that will emerge if water sources are polluted, overtaxed, or altered by climate change. These grave matters are discussed briefly and quite lightly on the last two pages of our story, then covered more in depth in the six extra pages of notes — a fantastic resource which extends each aspect of the story at a level for mid-elementary and up. The bulk of this book is superb for ages 4 and up.

Trash Talk: Moving Toward a Zero-Waste World, written by Michelle Mulder
published in 2015 by Orca Book Publishers

Of the 3 R’s in the environmental maxim — Reduce, Re-use, Recycle — the first is perhaps the most critical, most challenging, and least addressed.

We are a people shackled by consumerism. If we’re honest, we evaluate ourselves and others by our stuff — our homes, clothes, cars, gadgets, furnishings. We gather it like manna. We build bigger houses to accommodate it; rent storage space for the excess; and throw away astonishing volumes of it each year. Stuff does not make us happy, yet we keep buying — and trashing — more of it.

I think examining our relationship to stuff and trash is surprisingly vulnerable, indicting, illuminating. Michelle Mulder does just that in a non-shaming, yet direct way. The many facets of trash — the reason why we keep making more of it than past generations, the ways it damages our environment, and the intangible ways our habits affect not just the planet but our relationships with one another — will keep you turning the pages.

Gleaners at work, eliminating food waste from these fields.

Mulder inspires us to free ourselves from relentless consumerism and trash-making, encourages us with the innovative, heartening ways people are cultivating community and sustainability in one shot, and challenges us with information about the price to humans and our planet of so much trash.

Highly recommended for family discussions with kids ages 6 and up.

The Tragic Tale of the Great Auk, written and illustrated by Jan Thornhill
published in 2016 by Groundwood Books, House of Anansi Press

Do you want to avoid depressing books about extinct animals? I know. It’s hard to bear these stories and much nicer to read success stories like the Yellowstone wolves. Don’t overlook this title, though. It’s tragic, yet Thornhill swings it around in the end to encourage and inspire. We really can learn from our mistakes, if we face up to them.

Thornhill’s evocative, icy blue and gray illustrations sweep us into frigid North Atlantic lands and seas where hundreds of thousands of “northern penguins” — the Great Auks — once lived.

Regaling us with descriptions of these flightless swimmers, she awakens a proper sense of wonder at their magnificence, then unfolds for us the ways in which human progress spelled their demise. Innocuous developments such as the Vikings’ knack for shipbuilding, and recklessness by the greedy collectors of eggs — many factors came into play in the extinction of this marvelous bird.

Your heart will ache, as mine did, at their avoidable destruction, yet Thornhill wisely uses the final pages of her account to detail some surprising ways in which the Great Auk still “lives on.” I love that she models for us a way of soberly considering harm, then moving forward to do good. A lengthy text for ages 7 and up.

There are gobs more fantastic books in my Subject Index under Science. Some are listed under the sub-heading “Environmentalism” but check out the Animals, Earth, and Plants listings as well for many more titles.

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the-wolves-of-currumpaw-cover-imageThe Wolves of Currumpaw, written and illustrated by William Grill
published in 2016 by Flying Eye Books

In 1898, Ernest Thompson Seton published his classic collection of stories, Wild Animals I Have Known. Seton was a gnarly outdoorsman, a British naturalist, whose reminiscences of his encounters with animals are Jack Londonesque in their raw, wild, matter-of-factness. It’s a book that was on every boy’s nightstand for generations, though it has gone a bit out of fashion lately.front0

The first story in Seton’s collection – Lobo: The King of Currumpaw — has now been retold and illustrated by the phenomenally-talented British artist, William Grill, whose first book, Shackleton’s Journey, won the prestigious Kate Greenaway Medal, and also won my heart. My review of it is here. Grill has added to Seton’s story with further research into Seton himself, the era in which he lived, and the locale of New Mexico.

Old Lobo was the leader of a pack of wolves whose “deep howl struck fear through the hearts of ranchmen and farmers” as they awaited the dreaded attacks on their herds of cattle. A bounty was placed on his head, yet over and over, skillful hunters were outmatched by Lobo’s cunning.

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Enter Ernest Thompson Seton, whose determination to succeed where others had failed drives him to mercilessly pursue his prey. It’s a tale that will break the hearts of many readers, but keep reading and discover how it also ended up breaking the heart of Seton and steering him into new, conservationist activity.

As expected from Grill, this is a stunningly beautiful book, from the endpapers, blanketed in the vermilion and charcoal colors and patterns of the Navajo, straight through to the illustrated glossary —  tidy rows of Grill’s thumbprint-drawings accompanying definitions for this Western vocabulary of snipe and mesa and heifer.

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For the story itself, 75 pages long, Grill employs a combination of cinematic sequences – dozens of thumbprint-style images like clicks of the shutter, zooming in on the details; and then grand, double-page, full stops – sweeping vistas of the West sprawling out, arresting our attention, the tiny stature of man and beast shown puny against these imposing landscapes. Grill completely immerses us in this world, this story.

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The illustrations are in colored pencil. I love the textures, precision, and sketchbook-feel — the unpolished sense in keeping with the rugged territory, as though we’re seeing what captured Grill’s eye at any given moment. The natural, subdued palette appeals to realism, the tenor of the story, and respects the ability of the reader to settle into a long, sober account, devoid of Disneyfication.

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Be aware that this is a true story. Animals die, front and center. For those sturdy enough for that, I highly recommend this remarkable, gorgeous book. Ages perhaps 7 or 8 through Adult.

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Family Pack, by Sandra Markle, illustrated by Alan Marks

About a century ago, those in charge of Yellowstone National Park decreed that the wolves must go.  They weren’t good for tourism,  preying as they did on the animals tourists wanted to see.  By the 1920s, the last of the Yellowstone wolves was gone.

To read about the devastation this caused on the park’s ecosystems, read the book  When the Wolves Returned — Restoring Nature’s Balance in Yellowstone by Dorothy Hinshaw Patent which I’ve reviewed here.  The upshot is that scientists made an about-face, and  successfully reintroduced wolves to Yellowstone in the past 15 years, to the benefit of species from cottonwood trees to trout to eagles.

This book, Family Pack,  is the story of two wolves who were among the first to be brought to Yellowstone from Canada.  The young female in our story, known to researchers as Female 7, spent her first year in this vast wilderness on her own, which is not how a wolf likes to live.  Wolves are pack animals.  This gal hunted and howled and slept and prowled on her own, until finally, happily, somewhere in the midst of over 2 million acres of park, she met Male 2.  Apparently, it was love at first sight.

These two wolves and their pups created the first naturally-formed pack in the new Yellowstone wolf population.  You can follow the simple, interesting account of their hunting and howling and pup-rearing practices in Sandra Markle’s excellent book.   Alan Marks’ beautiful, arresting watercolors sweep us into the snowy Yellowstone forests, and give us tantalizing glimpses of the elusive, fascinating world of the gray wolf.   Crisp writing, easily accessible to ages 5 and up, this will interest much older readers as well.  An Author’s Note, list of further resources, and awesome gray wolf facts are all included.

Here’s the Amazon link: Family Pack

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Originally published August 2010

Clarice Bean: What Planet are You From?, story and pictures by Lauren Child

Clarice Bean is an 8-year-old girl with a hilarious, blunt manner of narrating her quirky observations of life.  In this episode, her teacher, Mrs. Wilberton, assigns the class a project called “The Environment.”  Coincidentally, her big brother Kurt hears about a fine, old tree in their neighborhood which is marked for removal.  Kurt is aghast at the plan and determines to “become an ecowarrior”, pitching a tent by the tree and making a “plan of action to stop all the destruction.”  The Bean family all meander their way into this project, making Free the Tree posters, cooking up bowls of spaghetti for the tree-dwellers’ dinner, and getting their pictures in the local paper. Throughout the whole story we hear Clarice’s wry comments on everything from the quantity of hair spray used by her sister, to her ketchup-on-toast concoctions (which create almost no dishes to wash!)

This is a laugh-out-loud account of a loving, off-beat family who band together for the sake of a tree.  It is a happy way of elevating concern for the environment and the small things we can do to make a difference, while not sounding like a PBS documentary.  Child’s illustrations are genius, with the loose, eccentric Bean family front-and-center, and mixed-media ingredients collected from recycled things — magazines, photographs, fabric and newspaper — flooding the pages with loud colors and textures.  Fantastic!

Frogs, words and photographs by Nic Bishop

I really, really love this book about frogs!!

Why the enthusiasm? 

First, Bishop’s photographs are fabulous, from the brilliant-red strawberry dart poison frog, to the teeny-tiny glass frog with its transparent skin, to the broad, comical face of a jumbo-sized African bullfrog.  We are captivated by a crazy pink tongue darting out to capture a caterpillar,  stunned by a mossy-looking camouflaged wonder, and delighted by some truly adorable red-eyed tree frogs.  These full-page photos are bursting with the colorful, awesome splendor of frogs.

Then, the text is…well…perfect.  Not an overwhelming amount of information, yet chock full of  “you’ve got to hear this!” tidbits.  We learn about the massive appetites of horned frogs, the tremendous air-travel of gliding frogs, the uncanny mothering care of the strawberry dart poison frog, and much, much  more.  All of it is written in a friendly, approachable tone which even a 5-year-old could readily understand but which does not talk down for even a moment.  This is an excellent choice for communicating the wonders of the animal world to your kids.  I am very impressed with Bishop’s work and am eager to find more of his books and collaborations in my library.

Planting the Trees of Kenya:  The Story of Wangari Maathai, written and illustrated by Claire A. Nivola

Wangari Maathai is a Kenyan woman who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004 for her work as founder of the Green Belt Movement.  This organization encourages poor rural women in Kenya to plant trees in order to combat the terrible effects of deforestation including erosion, disruption to the water cycle, loss of cooking fuel and income, malnutrition — the domino effect seems to go on and on.  This book tells the story of her life; of growing up in the fruitful highlands of Kenya back in the 1940s, of her education in the U.S., and of her dismay upon returning to Kenya at the environmental damage occuring there.  It tells of her beginning to teach the women to collect seeds from native trees, to plant and nurture those seedlings, and to expand this movement until over 30 million trees have been planted across Kenya.

The watercolor pictures Nivola has done for her book are very pleasing, full of the beautiful, varied greens of hills covered with vegetation, the golden browns of parched, thirsty land, and the colorful, flowing clothing of the African women and children dotting the countryside and villages.  The text itself is clear and uncluttered, full of hope rather than pessimism, even when speaking of the sad subject of deforestation.  A lengthy Author’s Note tells much more about Ms. Maathai’s life and work including her livestock loan programs, political activism, and numerous conflicts with the Kenyan government.  A worthy book about a woman doing hard, worthwhile, highly-beneficial work.

An Egg is Quiet, text by Dianna Aston, illustrations by Sylvia Long

This is a gorgeous book. 

Sylvia Long’s watercolors of dozens and dozens of different eggs are definitely the stars of the show.  She gives us beautiful blue robin eggs, round, garnet-red salmon eggs, artistically-speckled scarlet tanager eggs, eggs streaked with black, eggs tiny as peas, yellow eggs, orangey-bronze eggs, lobster eggs, shark eggs… all beautfully rendered in sweet color on creamy white pages. The limited text is hand-lettered in brown ink, adding to the loveliness of the entire work of art.

Textually, it is a very simple book.  The wonders of eggs are grouped together loosely on pages captioned, “An egg is colorful” or “An egg is shapely” or “An egg is textured.”  Small yet very interesting bits of information are given about the eggs featured on that page.  For example, we learn that an ostrich egg can weigh up to 8 pounds, while it would take 2,000 hummingbird eggs to equal that — this  on the page titled “Eggs come in different sizes.”  In the end, we find that, although eggs are generally quiet, they do suddenly become quite noisy when their dwellers hatch out!  The final pages in the book feature small, brilliant drawings of the many birds, insects, and other creatures which get their start in eggs.

This is a lovely book to gaze at with a child, to marvel over; it inspires us to see beauty in the small wonders around us, and perhaps even to try our hand at a watercolor painting of that magical treasure chest called an egg.

When the Wolves Returned — Restoring Nature’s Balance in Yellowstone, by Dorothy Hinshaw Patent, with photographs by Dan and Cassie Hartman

In the earliest years of Yellowstone National Park, the chief purpose of the park was to protect its geological fancies — mighty geysers, bubbling mud pots, and colorful layers of rock —  for tourists to enjoy.  The park’s wildlife was considered a side attraction. Hunting trips for elk were a main draw.  Park officials believed that ridding the area of wolves would save more elk for the tourist-hunters, so they issued a bounty on the wolves.  By  1926, the wolves were completely gone.

Over time, the absence of this predator wreaked havoc in the Yellowstone ecosystem, with elk herds growing out of control, coyote populations posing problems for smaller mammals, pronghorn antelope severely threatened, trees damaged by over-grazing, which thus eliminated songbirds, and so on and so on.  Gradually, scientists understood what had caused this imbalance, and a program was begun to re-introduce wolves in the Yellowstone area.  This book tells the fascinating story of all the troubles resulting from removing an actor in an ecosystem, and then the hopeful story of the  repair-work done when that actor is returned.  For, in just about 10 years since the wolves were returned, the ripple effects on various animal and plant populations in Yellowstone has been quite amazing. 

This is a compelling story with a great deal of excellent information accompanied by terrific photographs.   Dan Hartman and 16-year-old Cassie are a father-daughter photography team; Cassie was just 10 years old when she had her first photo published in an outdoors magazine!  Great encouragement for a budding nature photographer!

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