Summer reading: nature books for kids

Last week, I led some ecology programs in Maine with kids of various ages, including with the “Sand Diggers,” a group of children in preK-K. A few days before we drove up to Maine I checked the weather forecast. The National Weather Service was predicting rain most of the week, meaning we might be indoors much of the week. Uh oh. All my lesson plans for the Sand Diggers were for outdoors activities. I decided to get some nature storybooks to provide some indoors activities with the Sand Diggers.

I found a couple of good books at a nearby Mass Audubon sanctuary gift store. Our local bookstore didn’t really have any nature-themed picture books. So with the help of my librarian sister, I placed on online order for seven nature-themed picture books. Amazon was the only online bookseller who promised delivery in time for our trip to Maine; all I had to do was sign up for a month of free Prime “membership.” Of course, only one out of the books I ordered arrived before we left for Maine, typical of the poor customer service offered by Amazon. (Needless to say, I canceled my Prime “membership” before I had to actually start paying for that kind of poor service.)

Enough about Amazon, because this post is not about how horrible Amazon is. It’s a post about nine nature books for kids, all of which I think are pretty good. Capsule reviews of each book are below, with the best books saved for last.

The nine storybooks arranged on a table.
L-R, top row: I Can Name 50 Trees Today (the only book shipped on time by Amazon); The Lorax (shipped late by Amazon, but I got a free used copy from a Mass Audubon Little Free Library); Celia Planted a Garden (shipped late by Amazon); We Are Water Protectors (shipped late by Amazon); Light the Sky, Firefly (purchased from Mass Audubon).
L-R, bottom row: Up in the Garden and Down in the Dirt (shipped late by Amazon); Over and Under the Pond (shipped late by Amazon); Hike (purchased from Maine Audubon); The Hike (shipped late by Amazon).
Amazon shipped just 1 out of 7 books on time. Thank goodness for Mass Audubon and Maine Audubon, so I had books to read to the Sand Diggers. Support your local booksellers!

9. I Can Name 50 Trees Today (Bonnie Worth, Random House, 2006) is part of “The Cat in the Hat’s Learning library,” with Dr. Seuss-like illustrations by Aristides Ruiz and Joe Mathieu. The book is competently written in a Dr. Seuss style, and lots of facts about trees are presented in a pleasant fashion. Though it may not the best storybook out there, it’s a solid teaching book — I learned about it from master educator Kris Geering, who uses it with great effect with ages K-2.

(Shipped three days late by Amazon. I hate Amazon.)

8. The Lorax by Dr. Seuss (Random House, 1971) is a classic fable of pollution and ecological disaster. Seems like every kid knows this book, or at least knows the 2012 movie, and they all seem to like it. That means if you start reading The Lorax and don’t get to finish, no one will notice — which is exactly what happened with me and the Sand Diggers.

(Shipped three days late by Amazon; fortunately, I found a used copy in the Little Free Library at the Moose Hill Audubon Sanctuary in Massachusetts. The Lorax in Kirkus Reviews.)

7. We Are Water Protectors by Carole Linstrom, illus. by Michaela Goade (Roaring Book Press, 2020), is another anti-pollution book. The author and illustrator are both Native American, and provide a pan-Native perspective on collective action to prevent ecological disaster. It’s too bad they have to bad-mouth snakes to get their message across, referring to an oil pipeline as “a black snake that will destroy the land.” I happen to like black snakes, especially the Northern Black Racer (Coluber constrictor constrictor), and because they bad-mouthed snakes this book only makes it up to number 7 out of 9. Still, the illustrations are gorgeous, and the sometimes overly-earnest message is leavened with wonderful phrases like “We are all related,” and “Water is alive.”

(Shipped three days late by Amazon. Caldecott Medal winner. We Are Water Protectors in Kirkus Reviews.)

6. Light the Sky, Firefly by Sheri Mabry Bestor, illus. by Johnny Lambert (Sleeping Bear Press, 2022) in a nonfiction picture book about fireflies. It’s pretty hard to find good picture books about insects, so I was pleased to spot this book at the gift store as Mass Audubon’s Moose Hill Sanctuary. I appreciate the somewhat abstract illustrations, which should please even kids who think insects are yucky. The main text, in larger type, gives basic information about these fascinating insects, while smaller text blocks go into more depth for kids who want to learn more. I was looking forward to using this book with the Sand Diggers, but ran out of time before I could get to it.

Note to self: Bestor and Lambert have published two more insect books: Soar High, Dragonfly and Good Trick, Walking Stick.

(Purchased through Mass Audubon. Light the Sky, Firefly in Kirkus Reviews.)

5. Celia Planted a Garden by Phyllis Root and Gary D Schmidt, illus. by Melissa Sweet (Candlewick Press, 2022) is a fun story about how the nature poet Celia Thaxter managed to keep flower gardens blooming on the windswept landscapes of White Island and Appledore Island, seven miles off the coast of New Hampshire. I admit to an ongoing liking for Celia Thaxter’s nature poetry, even though she’s out of fashion, which makes me like this book more. Plus she was a Unitarian, of interest to many readers of this blog. But what I especially like about this book is that it tells how Celia insisted on keeping her flower garden in spite of an adverse climate — an example that might inspire all of us gardeners living with the growing effects of climate change.

(Shipped three days late by Amazon. Celia Planted a Garden in Kirkus Reviews.)

4. Up in the Garden and Down in the Dirt by Kate Messner, illus. by Christopher Silas Neal (Chronicle Books, 2015) helps children imagine what’s going on in and under a vegetable garden: “Down in the dirt is a whole busy world of earthworms and insects, digging and building and stirring up soil.” While above ground, the human girl whose garden it is bites a ripe tomato and “juice dribbles down [her] chin.” This change of perspective is a key part of my ecology teaching toolbox — too bad Amazon didn’t get this book to me in time, because it would have fit right in to my garden lesson plan.

(Shipped three days late by Amazon.)

3. Over and Under the Pond by Kate Messner, illus. by Christopher Silas Neal (Chronicle Books, 2017) is yet another book in Messner’s over/under series. This time, she explores life over and under a pond. More lovely illustrations by Christopher Neal. Lots of animals that live in New England, and I’m looking forward to using it with children someday soon.

(Shipped three days late by Amazon. Over and Under the Pond in Kirkus Reviews.)

2. Hike by Pete Oswald (Candlewick Press, 2020) is a picture book with almost no words. It tells the story of a parent taking their child for a hike in the woods. The gender and ethnicity of the child are ambiguous, which makes it easier for more kids to identify with them. I took the Sanddiggers on a little hike in the woods, and when we were almost done, we took a break at a convenient picnic table and looked through this book together. The lack of text allows an adult and the children to tell a story together. The Sand Diggers and I were able to relate some parts of our hike to the much more impressive hike in the book — e.g., we crossed some little bridges over drainage ditches, while the child in the story crosses a slippery log over a frighteningly large creek. Hike proved to be a really fun book for both me and the children, and a perfect adjunct to my hike lesson plan.

(Purchased at the Scarborough Marsh Audubon Center in Maine. Hike in Kirkus Reviews.)

And finally, the best book — where “best” means the book that best supports my teaching methods….

1. The Hike by Alison Farrell (Chronicle Books, 2019) tells the story of how three children go on a hike together in the countryside of the Far West. They encounter such iconic Western animals as Banana Slugs and Steller’s Jays, and walk under Douglas-firs and Coastal Redwoods. Then when the story is all done, you get to see eight pages from the sketchbook of one of the children. A key part of my ecology teaching toolkit is showing children how to keep nature notebooks. This book would provide a perfect introduction to middle elementary children. Actually, the last eight pages, the ones purporting to be from the sketchbook of one of the children, should work with upper elementary and middle school kids, giving them ideas of what they might put in their nature notebooks.

Farrell does get one or two things wrong, e.g., a nematode is not a “wormy insect,” it’s an organism in a phylum of non-segmented worms that are not related to insects (which latter are in phylum Arthropoda). In spite of such niggling complaints, this is a really good book, and one of the few I’ve found that covers the ecosystems of the Far West — I wish I’d had it when I was teaching ecology in the San Francisco Bay Area. I’ll be using it anyway in our ecology camp here in Cohasset, just to show kids what they might put in their nature notebooks.

(Shipped three days late by Amazon. The Hike in Kirkus Reviews.)

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