Taken at its most basic level, Jim LaMarche’s picture book, The Raft
(HarperCollins, 2000), tells the story of a boy being a boy. Young Nicky finds an old raft on the river near his grandmother’s cabin. This simple vessel opens allows him to explore the river and approach its wild creatures as he never could on foot. Nicky spends the summer days floating, swimming, and sleeping outside.
Drawing on memories of his own childhood, LaMarche uses a comfortably paced first-person narrative to set the scene in Wisconsin’s north woods. His distinctive pastel artwork, soft-edged yet radiant, fills each double-page spread. We watch Nicky from different angles, adopting the perspective of birds, turtles, otters, and other creatures that visit his raft.
Contemporary children’s literature doesn’t often incorporate young characters with such a well-developed and uncontrived connection to nature as Nicky's. For that reason, this book would have been notable even had the author stuck to a straightforward story of nature exploration. (Gary Paulsen and Margriet Ruurs succeed with this approach in their wonderful picture books—respectively, Canoe Days
and When We Go Camping
But LaMarche had something else in mind. Through Nicky, he reminds us that boys are more
than “just boys.” They are moved by emotions, affected by experience, and capable of deep empathy.
As the story begins, Nicky stares out the window of his father’s car at a passing cityscape. We learn that Nicky must live with his grandmother for the summer while his father (never pictured) goes away to work. Although the north woods setting is lovely and Grandma seems easygoing, tears fill Nicky's eyes as his father drives away.
On the first reading of this scene, children's attention will probably be riveted on Nicky's dejected expression. They'll be compelled to turn the page and learn what happens for this boy. But make time to linger the second time around. Take note of finer points in the illustration, such as a nearby dock and the animal "friends" hovering solicitously around Grandma. These details are characteristic of LaMarche, who is always attentive to the minutia that visually describe his characters and setting—some of which foreshadow later plot developments.
After his father departs, Nicky wanders through his grandmother's little cabin. It seems the perfect place for a child to enjoy, filled with books, art supplies, and outdoor gear. Intriguingly, the author gives hints that Nicky has never been here before—even that he and Grandma are almost strangers. Nicky’s relationship with Grandma is only one among numerous mysteries in The Raft. (Why must Nicky’s father take a job where the boy cannot join him? Where is Nicky's mother? And where did that raft come from?)
I point out these questions, yet I don’t mean to suggest that they weaken the story. In fact, I feel more engaged because the author does not tell me everything. Think of it this way: We never know anyone completely. Relationships (even in literature) can be enhanced by the sense that we still have something to learn about the other person. LaMarche understands the parameters of his story and doesn't try to cram in too much. He reveals what is essential to resolve the plot, leaving room for readers to imagine what lies before and after. Given the opportunity, kids will readily provide their own interpretations of Nicky’s backstory. This is great fodder for family conversations or classroom writing prompts.
Nicky needs some time to struggle with his feelings of loss and disorientation. Grandma encourages him to continue with the everyday stuff of life—chores, stacking firewood, fishing for dinner. One day, the raft drifts downstream and becomes entangled in reeds next to the dock. Nicky cleans it up and this object becomes his anchor--a way to connect with the pleasures and beauty of the moment. In the weeks that follow, he discovers a deep appreciation for wildlife and a new talent for art. More than this, Nicky begins to see how much he has in common with his grandmother. We don’t know what will happen once he returns home, but it’s clear that Nicky and Grandma have forged a bond that will endure. She reminds him that he’s now “part of the river,” too. The lonely, worried boy who arrived can leave assured that he has a place in someone’s heart—and a place in the world.
I couldn’t recommend this book more highly—but I must add a caveat regarding leveling. The publisher has marketed The Raft for ages 3 to 8. Preschoolers will certainly enjoy the art, but the messages in this long, subtle story will elude most of them. In my opinion, The Raft is perfect for boys and girls ages 6 and up.
It was one of those early March days that should have been miserable. Snow flanked the streets in jagged, gray piles. The overcast sky was sallow, and sharp gusts of wind bit our cheeks as my son and I began a walk around one of our local city lakes. Common sense dictated a quick retreat into the warmth of our car, yet something kept us outside. It was a sound, compellingly high and persistent over the rattle of the wind.
Glancing around eagerly, we finally spotted them: four black-capped chickadees hopping between branches in the shoreline shrubbery. Just across a narrow arm of the lake, an American robin skimmed over the snow. And there!—the crimson flash of a male northern cardinal in a backyard tree. We stopped to listen as the tiny chickadees, rotund in their fluffed plumage, called back and forth to each other: “Fee-bee!” The robin’s distant chuckle overlapped with a cardinal’s echoing “cheer, cheer, cheer!” As we stood, grinning and shivering in the barren winter landscape, the birds sang for the imminence of spring.
“What does the study of birds do for the imagination, that high power possessed by humans alone, that lifts them upward step by step into new realms of discovery and joy?”
Natural historian Neltje Blanchan De Graff Doubleday—who published simply as Blanchan—already knew the answer to this question when she posed it in the preface to her 1907 book, Birds Every Child Should Know
(University of Iowa Press, 2000). As they watch birds, children not only learn to appreciate the beautiful diversity of life on Earth but are also inspired to greater heights of curiosity, creativity, and compassion. Maybe you’ve already experienced this effect, as I have with my son. Or perhaps you are looking for a resource that suggests the idea to others. Birds Every Child Should Know
is the kind of book that speaks to readers at every level. As was common in natural history guides of her era, Blanchan incorporated personal observations, insights, and folklore along with life history facts and scientific data on each of more than one hundred common North American bird species. Each profile is just a few pages long, perfect for a quick read at bedtime, during a car ride, or—ideally—while outside among the birds themselves.
Blanchan’s lilted phrasing is old-fashioned but enduring, much like our favorite classic children’s stories and poetry. This makes the book fun to read aloud, requiring children to seek just the right intonation and pace to fully capture the author’s voice.
A wonderful example is found in this description of blue jays, from the chapter called “Rascals We Must Admire.”
“In summer he keeps quiet, but throws off all restraint in autumn. Hear him hammering at an acorn some frosty morning! How vigorous his motions, how alert and independent!”
Here’s another reason why I love Blanchan's writing. One day, while listening to me enthuse about seeing a yellow warbler in the yard, my son spontaneously recalled why these tiny birds migrate in the autumn. “We read it in that lady’s book,” he shrugged, seeing my raised eyebrows. He was right—but that reading had taken place almost a year before.
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“Rather than live where the skies are gray and the air is cold, this adventurous little warbler will travel two thousand miles or more to follow the sun…. Of course they do not undertake long journeys merely for pleasure, as wealthy tourists do. They must migrate to find food; and as insects are most plentiful in warm weather, you see why these atoms of animation keep in perpetual motion.”
Children today are accustomed to books as bold and busy as computer screens. Don’t let the simple layout of Birds Every Child Should Know
be a deterrent. Blanchan’s language will bring vivid pictures to mind—no graphics required. The University of Iowa Press has also tucked twenty-four detailed sketches into the heart of the book. Graphic artist Christine Stetter
’s work is like the delicious cream in the middle of the cookie. (You can find several editions from other publishers, some with photos. I have not looked at copies of these.)
Despite its generally lighthearted tone, Blanchan incorporated a pointed message into the preface of Birds for adult readers who chose to acknowledge it.
“If the thought of a tiny hummingbird, a mere atom in the universe, migrating from New England to Central America will not stimulate a child’s imagination, then all the tales of fairies and giants and beautiful princesses and wicked witches will not cause his sluggish fancy to roam. Poetry and music, too, would fail to stir it out of the deadly commonplace.”
Like some of her contemporaries, Blanchan recognized that the landscape of American childhood was changing. When Lewis and Clark set off to explore the West in 1804, just six percent of Americans lived in cities. By the time she wrote Birds Every Child Should Know, that figure had swelled to 40 percent—a trend that showed no signs of slowing. How would children learn to appreciate nature in painfully crowded cities, with little access to free time or space? And as new generations spread across an increasingly industrialized nation, what would become of America’s wilderness?
Educators and conservationists of the Progressive Era responded by promoting nature study in schools. Children deserved to experience nature directly, they said, rather than through what Blanchan called “training of the brain.” The more spontaneous and unstructured this interaction could be, said Blanchan, the better. She envisioned that time spent outside would spur “the growth of the heart,” maturing children with a sympathetic connection to nature and motivation to preserve it for the future.
The United States is now overwhelmingly urban. Once again, many Americans express concern about children’s lack of “green time.” For them, Neltje Blanchan’s advice will still ring true. Slow down and watch the birds.
Curious about the birds in your backyard? So are ornithologists! Solve the mystery by participating in the upcoming annual Great Backyard Bird Count. Click above to find out more!
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.