Writing by NEFF Chief Operating Officer Frank Lowenstein, top image shows interior pages of “We Are Water Protectors”
Children growing up today face an increasingly complex, and at times frightening, world. Among the many sources of anxiety and insecurity lie unprecedented changes in the natural world. Those changes—more dramatic than any that have occurred since the dawn of agriculture 12,000 years ago—threaten our food, air, water, climate, and sense of place.
Books can help children to understand the losses in the natural world that seem to worsen daily. Books can also help expose kids to landscapes they may not have access to, and can serve as a reminder of the beauty of nature when weather discourages real-life exploration. (Though it’s always worth remembering, as author Alfred Wainwright said, “There’s no such thing as bad weather, only unsuitable clothing.”) Books can help equip kids to love, defend and spend time in nature.
In 2020, dire assessments of the state of the environment rained down from scientists, governments, insurance executives (who, notably, are paid to assess risk), global financial institutions, and even the British royal family. Those paying attention heard carefully worded and studied projections of imminent ecosystem collapse in 20 percent of the world’s nations; of unsurvivable heat arriving to South Asia decades earlier than previously estimated and spreading to other areas soon thereafter; and of Arctic sea ice and ice caps both in jeopardy, threatening coastal cities around the world with flooding and northern hemisphere agriculture with increasingly unstable and unsuitable growing seasons.
So as environmentalists, parents, educators, book lovers, authors, or simply anyone interested in books, nature, and children, how can we help children to cope? What books are out there that build a love and understanding of nature and the threats to it, and that help children imagine a better future and see themselves as actors with agency who can make a difference?
For the last six years, I have taught environmental issues through both Brandeis University and Harvard Extension School. Although college students are not the same as the younger readers on whom this article focuses, some observations are relevant. They are ready to hear that there is hope and opportunity, but may be unaware that people have banded together to make a difference for the environment before, and no doubt can do so again. Moments like the Cuyahoga River catching on fire, 20 million Americans turning out for the first Earth Day, the great blue marble of Earthrise captured from the moon are unfamiliar to them. When given the opportunity to hear about the importance of individual vision—often delivered in book form—and organizational skill in making a difference in the world, they can be excited to action.
The history of environmental progress is based on the determination and influence of individuals. The growth of forestry as a profession in the United States really originated in George Perkins Marsh’s 1864 best-seller Man and Nature, and Marsh’s advocacy for wise and careful stewardship was taken up by people like Bernhard Fernow, Carl Schenck and Gifford Pinchot, who laid the foundations of American forestry. And Pinchot demonstrated the importance of organizational skill, helping found both the U.S. Forest Service and the Yale School of Forestry. Similarly, Marjorie Stoneman Douglas laid out remarkable natural resources at risk in her book The Everglades: River of Grass, changing the concept and image of the Everglades from worthless swamp to treasured natural system and helping drive over the finish line a decades-long effort to get it designated a national park. The history of environmental activism is full of similar stories of individuals making a difference: Rachel Carson on pesticides, Teddy Roosevelt on national parks, Lois Gibbs on toxic waste, Howard Zahniser on wilderness, and perhaps today’s most relevant example, Greta Thunberg on climate.
Talk about kids having impact! Greta Thunberg is the teen who overcame her own social anxiety to found the school climate strike movement “Fridays For Future” to demand global action on the climate crisis and stem its impact on future generations. At the age of 15, she began speaking publicly on the critical urgency of the climate crisis, eventually addressing the UN climate conference, the World Economic Forum, and the United Nations General Assembly. Notably, she reached the General Assembly by crossing the Atlantic on a sail boat, so as to avoid the climate impact of flying.
So which children’s books incorporate these themes—inspiring a love of nature, understanding the threat in front of us, coping with the stress and anxiety it can arouse, organizing for action, and finding the import and impact of the individual—all of course in age-appropriate doses? I based this list on books that resonated with my own nature-obsessed sons when they were young, on advice from friends and family about what worked in their kids’ lives, and on thoughts garnered from colleagues in my professional work both at universities and at NEFF. It is, of course, not a complete list. There are hundreds if not thousands more books about the environment, and many of them are excellent. Take the ones I offer here as a suggested starting point, to inspire your own young folks toward a healthy nature-obsession, and to equip them with suitable emotional and intellectual clothing for the coming turmoil.
Grandfather Twilight by Barbara Helen Berger (1996)
Bertolt by Jaques Goldstyn (2017)
The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein (1964)
We Are Water Protectors by Carole Lindstrom (2020)
Owl Moon by Jane Yolen (1987)
On a Magical Do-Nothing Day by Beatrice Alemanga (2018)
Dawn by Molly Bang (1983)
One Morning in Maine by Robert McCloskey (1952)
My Side of the Mountain by Jean Craighead George (1959)
The Lonely Polar Bear by Khoa Le (2018)
Katherine and the Garbage Dump by Martha Morris (1993)
The Lorax by Dr. Seuss (1971)
The Water Princess by Susan Verde (2016)
The Great Kapok Tree by Lynne Cherry (1990)
What A Waste by Jess French (2019)
One Plastic Bag by Miranda Paul (2015)
Hoot by Carl Hiassen (2002)
Crow and Weasel by Barry Lopez (1990)
Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O’Dell (1960)
No One Is Too Small to Make a Difference by Greta Thunberg (2019)
Books for Teens to Adults
The Long Thaw by David Archer (2016)
Bayou Farewell by Mike Tidwell (2003)
The Wizard and The Prophet by Charles Mann (2018)
The Anatomy of Power by John Kenneth Galbraith (1983)