Fewer children’s books feature natural environments

Our electricity went out for about an hour this morning. In this wind tunnel that we make our home, I am surprised it doesn’t happen more often. No electricity means no wifi, here. So instead of lurking around on Facebook, I sat down and read Conservation magazine.

I would have read it anyway, but it’s kind of nice when your distractions are taken away from you.

One piece summarized a journal article from Sociological Review. A group of researchers surveyed the number of natural and human-made environments in children’s books. They analyzed 8,000 images in 296 Caldecott winners.

What they found wasn’t that surprising. Over time “there has been significant declines in depictions of natural environments and animals while built environments have become much more common.” Art really does mimic life.

They went on to say, “natural environments have all but disappeared” from children’s literature.

On the up side, when natural environments are present in kiddie books, they are more likely to be portrayed positively. So, the evil, dark forest is a little friendlier these days.

Why does any of this matter?

These same researchers noted, “picture books play an important role in childhood socialization.” In other words, the books they read, or look at, helps shape how they see the world.

“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.”

With so many environmental problems facing us today, problems that our kids are going to have to deal with, they need to be well socialized with natural environments. Is getting outside the best way to accomplish this? Probably, yes. But we also know that reading to our kids is good for them for so many reasons, so we should be careful about the books we choose.

“A growing number of researchers have expressed concern about how increasing isolation from the natural world and declines in media content about nature may lead to less appreciation and understanding of ecological problems.”

I went through our fiction books to see how we stack up. (We have about the same number of nonfiction books as fiction, and almost all of those are nature-based).

Here are some of our favorite fiction books that feature natural environments. Only one is a Caldecott winner, but all are books we have enjoyed over and over. I’d love to see your favorites in the comments.

The Little Island by Margaret Wise Brown and Leonard Weisgard

You are probably more familiar with one of Margaret Wise Brown’s other books, Goodnight Moon, but this sweet little story is even better, in my opinion. There is a little island in the ocean—and this book is about how it is on that little island, how the seasons and the storm and the day and night change it, how the lobsters and seals and gulls and everything else live on it, and what the kitten who comes to visit finds out about it. (This is the Caldecott winner–see that gold metal on the cover?)

We’re Going on a Bear Hunt by Michael Rosen and Helen Oxenbury

I remember singing this song at camp…so many times. It’s fun to relive that with my boys. Follow four young children and their dad as they race through long grass, ford a river, thump through mud, and more, in search of a bear.

Bear Snores On by Karma Wilson and Jane Chapman

We love the whole series of “Bear” books. The pictures are beautiful and inspire us to get outside. Plus, the characters are so sweet to each other. One by one, a whole host of different animals and birds find their way out of the cold and into Bear’s cave to warm up. But even after the tea has been brewed and the corn has been popped, Bear just snores on. Until he wakes up….

Ghost Bat in a Gum Tree by Benette W. Tiffault and Peter Grosshauser

If you are one of those people who easily gets songs stuck in your head, this one might drive you crazy. I know that I will have the Twelve Days of Christmas in my head for the rest of the day. Thanks, mom. (She bought me this book years ago.)

This is actually a wonderful read-out-loud Earth Day counting book highlighting twelve threatened or endangered species. The rhymes are patterned after the holiday tune, The Twelve Days of Christmas.

Shanleya’s Quest by Thomas J. Elpel and Gloria Brown

Oh, I do love this one. It makes my inner botany nerd sing with joy. In a mythical world where time is a liquid that falls as rain upon the land, young Shanleya paddles her canoe out to the tree islands to learn the plant traditions of her people. Each island is home to a separate family of plants and an unforgettable Guardian with lessons to teach about the identification and uses of those plants.

Shanleya’s Quest is a truly unique educational book that presents botanical concepts and plant identification skills in an easy and fun metaphorical format for children as well as for adults who are young at heart.

Hello Ocean: Hola Mar by Pam Munoz Ryan and Mark Astrella, translated by Yanitzia Canetti

This book is written in both English and Spanish. It’s very poetic and evocative in both languages. Using rhyming text, a child describes the wonder of the ocean experienced through each of her five senses.

Cross-Country Cat by Mary Calhoun and Erick Ingraham

I love cross-country skiing and I love cats, so of course I love this story. When the family accidentally leaves Henry, their sassy Siamese, behind at the ski lodge, he takes matters into his own paws in this beguiling adventure.

This story is so fun, that even anti-Nordic, cate-haters will enjoy it.

The Umbrella by Jan Brett

Most of Brett’s stories take place in natural settings, and they are all wonderful. In this one,a walk through the Costa Rican cloud forest provides a wonderfully lush setting for her beloved animal and plant illustrations.

When Carlos drops his umbrella to climb a tree for a better view of the animals, they all cram into the banana-leaf umbrella as it floats by–from the little tree frog to the baby tapir to the big jaguar and more. It gets so crowded in the umbrella that there isn’t even enough room for a little hummingbird! So over the umbrella tumbles, everyone falls out, and poor Carlos comes back wondering why he didn’t see any animals all day.

One more, then I promise I’ll stop…for now.

A Garden of Whales by Maggie Steincrohn Davis and Jennifer Barrett O’ Connell

A fantastical, mystical idea for saving whales. The narrator of this tale is a boy who knows that whales are magnificent but endangered creatures. He wants to do anything he can to save them, and as he scrubs in his bathtub, he dreams up a plan to save the whales.

Children from all over the world also get in their bathtubs to save the whales, planting a garden of whales.

There are more books I’d love to tell you about, but I don’t want to overdo it here. And my computer is so slow that I might explode if I keep trying to use it. That spinning color wheel of death is about to push me over the edge. Mac users know what I am talking about.

Please add your favorite fictional children’s books that feature a natural environment.

(Disclosure: Those books are Amazon links, so if you click on one and buy the book, I get a tiny, tiny commission, which I will probably use to buy more nature-based children’s books.)

6 thoughts on “Fewer children’s books feature natural environments

  1. Debi

    I love it – a new list of reads for us. Thanks for sharing! We’re big into non-fiction science/nature books at the moment. The 7-year-old is drinking up knowledge at a scary rate. Kinda jealous. 🙂

  2. Mel Post author

    @Brooke and @Jane– Thanks for the suggestions! This study doesn’t worry me too much because there are so many great books out there. You just have to look. Hopefully a lot of parent, teachers and librarians are motivated to look.

    @Debi- I feel the same way! If I could take in as much new knowledge as my boys, I’d be a genius.

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