Word Play: Where the Wild Things still are

Special to the Los Angeles Times

The idea of caring for the environment seems to be easier to get across to kids than to adults. Many adults just think the world is too complicated. “What difference does one light bulb or one plastic water bottle make in the wide world?” they think.

For kids, it may be easier to grasp the idea that underlies every kind of activism: Change Begins With Me. After all, for kids, everything begins with Me. They are less overwhelmed by the vastness of the world, more willing to see the direct line between their own light switch and, say, a polar bear habitat. Many adults treat such connections as if they were cute fairy tales — as if only a child could imagine that one little SUV had any bearing on world oil consumption! For such adults, “Reduce, recyle, reuse” might as well be “Eenie, meenie, minie, moe.”

If the current crop of children’s books doesn’t make environmentalists out of the next generation, I don’t know what will. The following picture books are bursting with imagination, great stories, exhilarating ideas and wonderful art. Read them for pleasure; there isn’t a dry patch of didacticism anywhere.

Sustainability — a bedrock concept of environmentalism — is the subject of “Energy Island” by Allan Drummond (Farrar, Straus Giroux: $16.99, ages 6-10). Drummond tells the true story of the Danish island of Samso, where the citizens banded together to become almost entirely energy independent. The movement began with the question “What are some ways we could make our own energy?” At first, there were scoffers who said “Why us?” or “It will cost millions!” But in the space of a few years, the people of Samso came up with ways to produce the power they needed, especially using the wind that constantly swept the island. The thrilling idea, the book concludes, is that Samso is “not very different from where you live.” Your community doesn’t need wind; it needs a spark, to get people to think and work together.


Some kids are just drawn to animals. For them, it will be inspiring to read “The Watcher: Jane Goodall’s Life With the Chimps” by Jeanette Winter (Schwartz & Wade Books: $17.99, ages 4-8). This deceptively simple biography begins with Jane’s family frantically searching high and low for their 5-year-old, only to have her burst out of the henhouse with the triumphant cry: “I know how an egg comes out!” Detailing her legendary powers of observation, the story follows her to Africa and into the bush, where she patiently waited for the chimpanzees to trust her so that she could learn their secrets.

Another look at a scientist at work comes in “Far From Shore: Chronicles of an Open Ocean Voyage” by Sophie Webb (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt: $17.99, ages 9-12). A field biologist and naturalist, Webb describes her daily experience aboard a research vessel on a half-year mission in the Eastern Tropical Pacific. As she collects her samples and makes her analyses, she also makes drawings of what she sees, scene-setting seascapes as well as technical studies recording her observations. This book, like the Jane Goodall biography, gives a rare glimpse into the pleasures of meaningful work.

Meant for even the tiniest children, Molly Beth Griffin’s “Loon Baby” (illustrated by Anne Hunter, Houghton Mifflin: $16.99, ages 4-8) is a perfect marriage of the art of storytelling and the precision of the naturalist. One day, when Mama Loon dives into the lake, Loon Baby waits and waits for her. He tries his own little dives, but he keeps bobbing up because he hasn’t mastered the strong kick yet. Where is she? He can’t find her anywhere. Finally he gives a cry, “a high-low shuddering cry, a mournful, wavering cry, a sinking, giving-up cry” that “shook his whole body and shivered out over the whole empty lake.” And up pops Mama! Now there is a grand story climax, as well as a naturalist’s description that Charles Darwin himself could be proud of.

For 200 years, naturalists were perplexed by their inability to discover where the marbled murrelet nested. In “Seabird in the Forest” (Boyds Mills Press: $17.95, ages 5-9), Joan Dunning spins the wonderful tale of this tiny ocean bird, which spends its life on and in the Pacific Ocean, floating on the waves and diving for fish to eat. When it is ready to lay eggs, the bird flies inland, as far as 50 miles, to the high canopy of the redwood forest. There it builds a nest and raises its chick, flying back and forth to the sea to bring back small fish to feed the baby. When the chick is ready, his instinct leads him back to the sea.


In “Thunderbirds: Nature’s Flying Predators” (Sterling: $14.95, ages 6 and up), Jim Arnosky has found a way to squeeze the grandeur and awesome power of birds of prey into the tame format of a picture book. His fold-out pages let him spread out, at something like life-size, his paintings of an osprey wing, a pelican beak or the astonishing variety of owl faces.

In “Olivia’s Birds: Saving the Gulf” (Sterling: $14.95, ages 6-12), 11-year-old Olivia Bouler tells her own story of using her paintings of birds to raise money for the Audubon Society’s gulf oil spill recovery program. A beautiful book and potential inspiration for a summer project.

For many of us living in the city, our most intimate contact with nature is seeing how birds find places to nest as if the urban landscape were their forest. In “My Baby Blue Jays” (Viking: $16.99, ages 5-8), John Berendt, author of the (adult) bestseller “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil,” turns his captivating storytelling powers to the family of bluejays that took up residence outside his New York apartment window. He began photographing them when the blue jay and his wife (no scientific terms in this book!) bring in their first scrap of nesting material, and followed their offspring until they stepped out on their own (“As he fell, he fluttered his wings frantically. Not enough to fly, just enough to slow his fall a little”). His patient observation shows how close a novelist’s eye can be to Jane Goodall’s scientific rigor.

In “The Honey Bee Man” (Schwartz & Wade Books: $17.99, ages 4-8), Lela Nargi tells the story of city within a city. Fred lives in urban Brooklyn, but on his roof, he tends a city of bees. We learn about the life within the hives as Fred watches over them and dreams of the distant flowers his “girls” visit and the fragrances of the honey he will harvest and share with his neighbors. This beautiful blend of storytelling and biology is well-served by Kyrsten Brooker’s illustrations, which manage to be both precise and imaginative.


“Suryia & Roscoe” by Bhagavan “Doc” Antle with Thea Feldman, with photographs by Barry Bland (Henry Holt: $15.99, ages 4-8) is the sweet true story of a stray dog who wandered onto a preserve for rare animals in South Carolina and struck up a friendship with an orangutan. Although the tale itself doesn’t drive home any biologically significant information, the endearing photographs might well make you want to go out and save an orangutan — or a stray pup.

The Meadowlands is an area in New Jersey, visible across the river from Manhattan, that many people think of as “just smelly swamps,” or “where the airport or malls or stadiums are,” or “not much of a place at all.” The land actually has a fascinating natural history, detailed in “Meadowlands: A Wetlands Survival Story” by Thomas F. Yezerski (Farrar, Straus & Giroux: $17.99, ages 5-8). An estuary fished by Native Americans, the area has had many uses, from colonial farmland to industrial development to chemical dumping ground. But underneath, the wetlands have retained their power to regenerate, a process that the book’s beautiful watercolors bring to vivid life.

Contrasting the careful work of the farmer with the random workings of the weather and wild creatures, “Planting the Wild Garden” by Kathryn O. Galbraith, illustrated by Wendy Anderson Halperin (Peachtree Publishers: $15.95, ages 4-8) shows how seeds make their way in the world. The wind scatters them, the rain washes them; they are carried by streams and animals — sometimes even by people. The sumptuous illustrations by Wendy Anderson convey the richness and profusion of wild plantings.

How we move around our country — Cars? Bicycles? High-speed rail? — is a big issue in environmentalism, and “Just Fine the Way They Are” by Connie Nordhielm Wooldridge, illustrated by Richard Walz (Calkins Creek/Boyds Mills: $17.95, ages 8 and up) shows readers that making decisions about technical progress is not always easy. Beginning in 1805 and hitting every new transportation fad along the way, the book gives a history of U.S. roads, from dirt track to superhighway. At every point, there were people who embraced new technologies (bicyclists “claimed the act of walking was on its last legs!”) and people who thought things were “just fine the way they were.” That’s a fine philosophical debate to introduce to budding environmentalists.


Bolle writes the column Word Play, on young adult and children’s books, which appears monthly at