To learn which books a child loves most, you could inquire. But the evidence can often be seen in the books themselves. Through devoted rereading, the corners of a child's most beloved books become soft and frayed; cracks form along their fragile spines, and pages must be taped to repair tears incurred from enthusiastic turning. The Salamander Room
(Dragonfly Books, 1991), written by Anne Mazer
and illustrated by Steve Johnson
, was among the first books my son singled out for this kind of tough love.
The Salamander Room begins when Brian, a boy of about five, finds a fiery orange salamander on the forest floor. Smitten, he brings the animal home. Most of the story is told through dialogue. Brian’s mother—who, admirably, shows no sign of squeamishness at this new arrival—poses guiding questions that encourage the boy to consider what a salamander needs to be at home. The boy’s expressive replies reveal the power of a child’s imagination.
Author Anne Mazer captures the expansive enthusiasm of a small child, yet keeps his ideas grounded in ecology. As a result, this charming story is also an effective educational tool. Through Brian, we learn about the salamander's needs for survival (food, water, shelter, appropriate temperature, etc.), its place on a food web within a temperate forest habitat, and even hear about the components required for photosynthesis. These messages come through without being weighed down by scientific terminology that would confuse and distract young readers. Also integral to the story is an ethical question that will spark the thinking of older kids: Should wild animals be kept as pets?
Steve Johnson, a native Minnesotan who studied at St. Paul's School of Associated Arts, provides illustrations that almost seem to come alive on the page. If that description sounds trite, consider this progression of events. The first two-page spread depicts Brian as he discovers the salamander under a pile of autumn-dry leaves. Here, the art is tidily framed by a white border. When the boy returns home and begins answering his mother’s questions, the illustrations become less contained. At first the changes are small—just a few leaves hanging over the edge of a frame here, a salamander's tail dangling there. Within a few pages, however, a multitude of creatures are creeping and fluttering around the text. Eventually an entire forest—complete with mature trees and a lily pad-studded pond—spills across the pages. The transition is so complete that Brian's dialogue must float atop foliage, tree trunks, and a luminous sky.
Mazer offers no grand moral to wrap up the package. Brian and the salamander simply fall asleep, side-by-side in a starlit forest. We understand, without being told so, that this is the salamander's "room.” It’s equally clear that Brian can imagine loving the forest like his own home.
While adults may recognize elements of magical realism in The Salamander Room, young children might reply that reality is magical. Until they are taught otherwise, children often don’t lay boundaries between humanity and the natural or metaphysical worlds. They value stories that show this perspective, and will return to them again and again. With that in mind, expect your copy of The Salamander Room to become ragged with use. Not to worry. As we learned from the Velveteen Rabbit, this only proves that it is Real.
Young readers may be inspired, as I was, to find the many animals Steve Johnson has hidden in the pages of The Salamander Room
. In addition to three salamander species (possibly the mud salamander, spotted salamander, and red-lined salamander), this "habitat" includes a multitide of insects, spiders, and songbirds. Children who live east of the Rocky Mountains will recognize some of these creatures from their own backyards and local parks. Less familiar species can be identified using a magnifying glass and a field guide.
I’ve included a partial list below. Can you locate these animals? What can you add to the list?
- Northern cardinal
- American goldfinch
- Eastern bluebird
- tree swallow
- black-capped chickadee
- painted bunting
- vermillion flycatcher
- monarch butterfly
- Eastern swallowtail butterfly
- woolly bear caterpillar
- red skimmer dragonfly
“Polar bears are gonna be extincted soon,” my son solemnly informs me one evening at the dinner table.
Knowing that our local school does not cover environmental themes in its kindergarten curriculum, I ask, “Where did you hear about the polar bears, babe?”
“The substitute teacher read a book at group time,” he explains between bites of grilled cheese sandwich. “It said that there are less polar bears every year.”
“So… what does it mean to be extinct?” I probe.
“Gone forever,” he replies, putting down the sandwich and frowning. “That’s awful! People are so stupid!”
“Why? How do people affect the polar bears?”
Using the oratory voice he adopts when “teaching,” my son begins to explain. “People make the polar bears swim a long way. When they can’t find land, they get drowned.”
Although it took place more than three years ago, this conversation is seared in my memory. It was poignant to watch my little boy struggle with his emotional response to a situation whose causes he could only marginally comprehend. In that moment, I realized how important it is to be mindful of the way we teach children about nature and the environment.
Teachers, parents, and other caregivers have the best of intentions when introducing children to environmental problems such as endangered species and climate change. The goal is to grow stewards of a sustainable future. Yet I’m concerned that we rush into this effort before children have a basic grasp of “how nature works” or are grounded by familiarity with their local environment. The outcome may be a rising tide of environmental apathy. Often attributed to lack of exposure to nature, this emotional disconnect may equally be the result of over
exposure to the details of humanity’s impact on the environment.
I contend that children are best served when environmental education starts close to home, focusing on the parts of nature they can observe and investigate directly. This realm of exploration can be gradually expanded to take in the diversity of life on Earth. Using this approach, young people in the middle grades are developmentally and conceptually prepared to grasp the complex underlying reasons for environmental threats.
Parents can forward this cause simply by getting children out of the house, to places—backyards, gardens, parks, beaches, etc.—where they gain a multifaceted, personal experience of nature. Reading is another bulwark. Through books, children see the familiar with new eyes; they explore diverse settings and ideas before encountering them directly.
As an author, educator, and parent, I’ve enjoyed the opportunity to read a wide variety of children’s literature that deals with nature and environmental themes. Here on NatureLit, I will review and recommend literature in those genres. We’ll look at books—fiction and non-fiction, at all reading levels—that:
- offer compelling stories and art
- are factually accurate (within the scope of the intended theme, genre, and audience)
- use language and content that are developmentally appropriate for the audience
- are currently in print (though not always “new”).
I look forward to your comments and contributions as we build a collection of books that enlightens the relationship between children and nature.
| |In addition to developing children’s sense of place, studies show that unstructured play in nature enhances learning, behavior, and health—not to mention simply being fun.
For more on this topic, see works by David W. Orr and Stephen R. Kellert, both of whom have studied children’s relationship to nature since the early 1990s.
The benefits of reading know no age limit. Visual perception improves as an infant gazes at colorful illustrations; s/he bonds with parents whose voices are heard in a soothing daily ritual of reading. In a toddler’s hands, a book becomes an object of curiosity to be manipulated and explored with all the senses. Young children savor the repetition of favorite stories, in the process gaining a wider vocabulary and making sense of common speech patterns. Through books, older children begin to make mental connections between the familiar and the new. They learn to anticipate, evaluate, and communicate—skills that will be valuable throughout life.