Caring for God's Creation: Books for budding environmentalists
In the Book of Genesis, God creates a lush world thick with birds, fish, animals and every good thing, and entrusts this sacred gift to man. This environmental stewardship motivates “green” Pope Benedict’s activism, from installing solar panels in the Vatican to urging a response to global climate change. It is our religious obligation to protect the planet. St. Francis and the Animals, with gentle rhymes by Alice Joyce Davidson and accessible art by Maggie Swanson (Regina Press, 2006), provides a lovely introduction for young children to the Franciscan call to creation-care.
A host of books for young readers explore green themes. A new children’s picture book, richly illustrated by Jim Arnosky, offers a revision of this Genesis moment in all its primeval, Garden-of-Eden grandeur. In Man Gave Names to All the Animals (Sterling Publishing, 2010, ages 1-6 years), Arnosky illustrates the lyrics to “Man Gave Names to All the Animals,” by the Pulitzer Prize-winning songwriter Bob Dylan. You do not have to be a Dylan fan to appreciate Arnosky’s realistic pencil and acrylic paintings of 170 animals (all named on the back page) and the subtle message they send of our responsibilities as stewards of creation. If you are a Dylan fan, however, you will appreciate that the book comes with a CD of the song, a great way to turn story time into a sing-along.
Dr. Seuss’s The Lorax (Random House, ages 4-8) also opens with echoes of Eden. But the primeval forest as imagined by Dr. Seuss (a k a Theodore Geisel) is composed of Truffala trees, rendered in eye-popping colors and improbable shapes. The Lorax is Seuss’s 20th-century adaptation of the Fall in Genesis. In Geisel’s version, mankind destroys paradise not by eating forbidden fruit but by chopping down all the fruit trees, a severe violation of Judaic law, bal tashchit.
Marking its 40th anniversary this year, the children’s classic is (unfortunately) just as topical today. The original tree-hugger, the Lorax, and his fantastic Seussian companions, the Brown Bar-ba-loots, the Swomee-swans and the Humming-fish, live in a “glorious,” balanced eco-system until the arrival of the Once-ler, who is “crazy with greed.” The Once-ler chops down the Truffala trees to make Thneeds, a consumer product of marginal utility; but, as the Once-ler crows, “You never can tell what some people will buy.” The Lorax argues for environmental protection and for the prophetic responsibility to speak on behalf of the voiceless. “I am the Lorax. I speak for the trees. I speak for the trees, for the trees have no tongues. And I’m asking you, sir, at the top of my lungs” to stop the eco-genocide.
The Once-ler, intent on profit, retorts that “business is business! And business must grow!... I have my rights, sir, and I’m telling you, I intend to go on doing just what I do!” He does not heed the Lorax’s dire warnings, or even believe them, until it is too late.
As the tragedy unfolds, Seuss’s color palette fades from bold colors to grimy tones until Eden has been destroyed. But Dr. Seuss places his hopes in our children, giving them the last Truffala seed, and a mission; “UNLESS someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.” That is a wonderful line that I use in my classes at Catholic University. It will soon come to life in the 3D movie now in production, starring Mr. DeVito as the voice of the Lorax, Zac Efron as the boy given the last Truffala seed (named Ted in honor of Theodore Geisel) and with some new characters added, like Betty White as the boy’s grandmother. It speaks to our climate-changed, post-BP oil spill world. As Danny DeVito noted in an interview in USA Today, “We’ve got to wake up and smell the oil burning.”
Kevin Henkes, a Caldecott Medal-winning children’s book artist and author, playfully conveys the joys of nature and tending the earth in My Garden (Greenwillow Books, 2010, ages 4-8). In a perfect match of simple, poetic text and navy outlines with bright Easter egg colors, Henkes does not preach, but invites children to ponder the creative bounty of the earth. A young girl considers the wonders of her garden. “In my garden, there would be birds and butterflies by the hundreds, so that the air was humming with wings,” and “a great big jellybean bush.” Henkes plants seeds of the love of creation-care, covers them with dirt and pats “down the dirt with my foot.... Who knows what might happen?”
Gardens and Animals
In Let’s Save the Animals (Candlewick Press, 2010, ages 3-8), Frances Barry uses textured, cut-paper collages and ingenious layouts (the open book creates an oval shape, so readers hold the world in their hands) to urge her young readers to save the endangered species illustrated throughout the book. In large text she simply describes the animals in their habitats: “I’d save the orangutan, stretching from branch to branch and swinging through the tropical rain forest.” In smaller text creatively intertwined with the art, she offers more details about the causes of the animals’ demise. The lift-the-flap format not only invites reader participation but also underscores the book’s theme of these species’ precarious fate: “Now you see them, now you don’t.” Black animal cutouts against black backgrounds illustrate their absence. The final page spread lists 10 simple ways children can help protect endangered species.
A non-fiction picture book by Jeanette Winter, Wangari’s Trees of Peace: A True Story from Africa, (Harcourt, 2008, ages 4-8), tells the inspiring story of Wangari Maathai, awarded the Nobel Prize for her Green Belt Movement. To combat deforestation in her native Kenya, she enlists local women to plant more indigenous trees. Trees help the land and the farmers avoid desertification and poverty, and they also build peace, as environmental degradation spurs violent conflicts over scarce farmland and resources. Her movement has spread to 30 African countries, helping poor, African women farmers, the poorest farmers on the earth (according to the U.N. World Food Program). Simple text and pictures clarify the intersections of environmental damage, poverty and violence. Imprisoned for her activism, Wangari is not the only to have been imprisoned. “Talk of the trees spreads over all of Africa, like ripples in Lake Victoria...until there are over 30 million trees where there were none.” Winter’s words are complemented by her bright colors and repetitive patterns that conjure up the beauty of Africa.
Now to Florida
The world is funnier with Carl Hiassen in it. A persistent and ironic investigative reporter, Hiassen has been writing exposés about corruption in South Florida for The Miami Herald for nearly 40 years. He weaves his stories with an honest, satiric wit reminiscent of Mark Twain. Recently, he has adapted his talent to middle school and teen fiction, with great success. In a trio of novels, kids become “everyday environmentalists,” sometimes reluctantly. They do not set out to save Florida’s wetlands and endangered species, but a funny thing happens on the way to school. They uncover corporate pollution and coverups and decide they must respond, while the adults around them are often either unable or unwilling to take on the issues. The quirky characters and deadpan descriptions of the good, the bad and the crazy in South Florida are as thick as Spanish moss in a Florida swamp, so real you will practically feel the mosquitoes bite.
In Hiassen’s Scat (Knopf, 2009, ages 9-12), a class field trip to the Black Vine Swamp goes unexpectedly awry, as their feared battle-axe of a biology teacher (the aptly named Mrs. Starch) and the class underachiever and arsonist, Smoke, go missing in a suspicious fire at the swamp. An oil company illegally drilling in the swamp set the fire in an attempt to cover their tracks and frames Smoke for the fire. But the persistence and ingenuity of the classmates Nick and Marta exonerate Smoke, find Mrs. Starch (actually an environmental activist) and save an endangered Florida black panther and her cub along the way. The pace, characters, sense of place and poignant humor of the novels alone make them essential reading. The green themes are a bonus. The author’s tongue-in-cheek humor and sunny Florida settings nicely balance the more serious ethical and environmental challenges. Readers familiar with Hiassen’s profanity-laced crime novels for adults can rest easy; these books are profanity-free.
It’s Easy Being Green
Because the specifics of creation-care can be complicated, a host of new non-fiction books clarify these issues for elementary-school age through teenage children and their parents and teachers. Three in this category stand out. What’s the Point of Being Green?, by Jacqui Bailey (Barron’s, 2010, ages 9-12), clearly explains environmental issues without talking down to children. Organized in useful blocks from “What’s the Problem?” and “How Did It Get So Bad?” to “So What Can We Do?”—suggestions for action at the individual, community and international levels—the book deftly weaves photos, facts and tips for action. The sections “Why Do Some People Go Hungry?” and “How Wealthy Are You?” are by themselves worth the price of the book, as many green books do not mention that the poor suffer most from environmental damage.
Earth in the Hot Seat: Bulletins from a Warming World, by Marfe Ferguson Delano (National Geo-graphic Society, 2009, ages 9-12), combines superb National Geogra-phic photography and compelling comments from scientists, like: “Things that normally happen in geologic time are happening during the span of a human lifetime. It’s like watching the Statue of Liberty melt.” The photos memorably tell the story, including before-and-after pictures of melting glaciers and representations of the carbon emitted by a sport utility vehicle.
A Kid’s Guide to Global Warming: How It Affects You and What You Can Do About It, by Glenn Murphy (Weldon Owen, 2008), also clearly explains climate change with fascinating pictures and graphs; but except for a photo in the disease section, the book overlooks the disproportionate effect of climate change on the world’s poor.
All these books shine a bright light on environmental pain, while urging individual and collective action to resurrect our suffering planet—a fine message for Earth Day and every day.