When I was a girl, I spent a season restoring an abandoned garden on the moors of Yorkshire. I took a pair of hound dogs hunting for raccoons deep in the Oklahoma Ozarks. I befriended a falcon named Frightful, a deer named Flag, and a wolf named Kapu.
I’m not speaking literally, of course. More like literarily. The Secret Garden, Where the Red Fern Grows, My Side of the Mountain, The Yearling, and Julie of the Wolves were just a few of my favorite children’s books, all portals to worlds wilder than any I knew directly. In truth I was a wary bookworm—afraid of trying anything too new or too unpredictable. Picture me there on the sofa, chewing the end of my braid, a book in my lap and a look of concentration on my face. My older brothers are watching “Godzilla” on TV. My sister is sunbathing on the patio.
My mother asks if anyone wants to go to the grocery store. No one has any idea that I’m hauling my sled across the frozen tundra, wolves at my heels.
Even though my family didn’t often opt for bold outdoor adventures, I always found ways to pretend—under the blue spruce in my yard, inside a snow fort—that I was braver and my world was rougher than I and it really were. And with age came opportunities to move from the imagined to the real—to hike, camp, take canoe trips, and get lost in the wilderness (at least temporarily!).
For all these reasons, I’m a firm believer that the right stories can really help kids build a relationship with the natural world. They get them curious. Inspired. Imagining. But like many people, I’ve also found myself wondering over the years if kids today are still drawn to the kinds of nature-oriented books I read as a kid, and if publishers are still producing them. We all know what the hot books are right now. Dystopian fiction like The Hunger Games. Fantasy reads like Harry Potter. Vampires by the dozen. Is there even room any more for the stories that delve deep into a natural kingdom and show ordinary people making their way there?
This topic hit the news recently with the release of a study led by J. Allen Williams, Jr. of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. He and his research team looked at 296 children’s books—all Caldecott award winners from 1938 to 2008—and found a significant decline in representations of natural places and animals over the last two decades. They concluded, “These findings suggest that today’s generation of children are not being socialized, at least through this source, toward an understanding and appreciation of the natural world and the place of humans within it.”
A survey of award-winning children’s book illustrations didn’t sound like an exhaustive study to me, though. So I began perusing the list of best-selling children’s books in the New York Times Book Review over the course of a year to see where that would lead (hardly scientific, but illuminating all the same). Here too I saw little to suggest that nature is a popular theme in today’s children’s books.
Of the top-selling books in each category (picture books, paperbacks, chapter books, and series), on average only two of the 40 were stories about people—or even anthropomorphized animals—in nature.
I asked a couple of well-regarded children’s librarians what they thought of these trends. Their first response was to insist (wisely, I thought) that we not get too nostalgic for the old classics. They named a number of recent books with a strong emphasis on the environment, and several great authors—including Joseph Bruchac, Julia Alvarez, Gary Paulsen, and Louise Erdrich—who routinely evoke the natural world in their stories. But curiously—at least to me—many of the nature-themed books they extolled fell into the category of eco-warrior fiction: The world is going to hell and it’s up to our junior hero to save nature/animals/life as we know it. But those aren’t actually the titles I’d be inclined to include on a list of nature must-reads.
For one thing, I’m not sure eco-disaster books do much to get kids excited about actual nature. It’s what David Sobel has written about in Beyond Ecophobia: we want our kids to develop a love of nature before they’re besieged with its problems. Otherwise, it will be a source of anxiety and negativity, and something they may increasingly choose to avoid. In books where nature is a problem to be solved or a sick victim to be cured, the risk is that it becomes one-dimensional: it’s the ecological version of the girl tied up on the railroad tracks, there to show off the heroics of the protagonist more than a sustaining subject in its own right. I also have a hunch that eco-heroes are sometimes (though certainly not always) as impossibly gifted as the young wizards who dominate fantasy fiction these days. I had a children’s book editor tell me recently that she is tired of the perfect, super-achieving characters (boys especially) who populate so many contemporary children’s books.
One of the greatest gifts of spending time in nature is being humbled by it. Being quiet, receptive. Facing our fears and our limits. What does it say about this moment that we are feeding kids’ egos, their yearning for magical solutions, instead of asking them to explore their imperfect humanity and our own complicated but still magical earth?
We didn’t have a lot of books about environmental problems when I was a kid. The stories that really nurtured my connection to nature were simply ones where a landscape and its inhabitants came alive.
I wanted to experience vicariously the wind on the prairie, the waves on the seas. I wanted to see what badgers or lions looked like up close and contemplate their daily routines, their wild spirits. On some level, I’m not even sure these had to be real ecosystems and real species.
I loved anthropomorphized animals, and I’m pretty sure it didn’t damage my ecological intelligence to imagine the language of moles, spiders, or bears—in fact it probably helped! Similarly, my husband, addicted to J.R.R. Tolkien as a boy, says that the landscapes of Middle Earth were rendered so richly that they made him curious about the real ecosystems he traipsed through on long family canoe trips in Minnesota and Canada. So no matter if he was peering under the spruces imagining a hobbit hole. The point is, he was out there peering!
Over the last couple of years I’ve been compiling an eclectic list of my favorite books for children about nature and the outdoors, and I’ve listed a selection of these below. These aren’t field guides or science books; most are fiction and a few are memoir. All of them convey the delight, excitement, wonder, or challenge of being outdoors in everything from city parks to remote tundra. With the winter holiday season upon us, maybe now is the perfect time to choose a few of these books for your kids, curl up someplace warm, read them together, and then imagine your own next chapter in nature together!
The Complete Adventures of the Mole Sisters by Roslyn Schwartz
If You Want to See a Whale by Julie Fogliano and Erin Stead
Ladybug Girl by Jacky Davis and David Soman
Ladybug Girl and Bingo by Jacky Davis and David Soman
Me…Jane by Patrick McDonnell
Owl Moon by Jane Yolen
Stella, Fairy of the Forest by Marie-Louise Gay
Tracks in the Snow by Herbert Wong Eye
Grasshopper on the Road by Arnold Lobel
Henry and Mudge and the Green Time by Cynthia Rylant
Henry and Mudge and the Starry Night by Cynthia Rylant
Houndsley and Catina, Plink and Plunk by James Howe
Mouse and Mole: Fine Feathered Friends by Herbert Yee
Zelda and Ivy and the Boy Next Door by Laura McGee Kvasnosky
Abel’s Island by William Steig
Birchbark series by Louise Erdrich
The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly
Gone-Away Lake by Elizabeth Enright
My Side of the Mountain by Jean Craighead George
Wildwood by Colin Meloy
The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame
Crow Lake by Mary Lawson
High, Wide, and Lonesome by Hal Borland
The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien
Ordinary Wolves by Seth Kantner
An Owl on Every Post by Sanora Babb
The Red Pony by John Steinbeck
A Ring of Endless Light by Madeline L’Engle
Winterdance by Gary Paulsen
More Reading and Resources
C&NN’s Where Nature Meets Story: For Parents and Educators, created by Sara St. Antoine