Protecting Our Planet: An Earth Day Round-Up

April 20, 2023 § Leave a comment

Fun fact: the second post I ever penned for this blog was for Earth Day 2012, when my then four-year-old daughter turned to me and said, “Aren’t we supposed to care about the Earth every day?” YES!

Heeding this call, the children’s publishing world has exploded in recent years with offerings about the natural world, many packed with fascinating nuggets and gorgeous art. While spring remains prime time for many of these releases, there’s no longer quite the urgency to time them around Earth Day. In other words, parents and educators alike are proving themselves game to purchase and enjoy these books with children all year long. Hurrah!

I often talk about how reading aloud to my children has been one of the best ways I’ve found as a parent to slow down, even on the days when time with my kiddos hasn’t felt savor-worthy (wink, wink). It’s also true that sharing picture books about the natural wonders outside our front door has sharpened my own powers of observation. I take as much—maybe even more?—enjoyment from these books as my kids do, perhaps because my own childhood was so devoid of them. Alongside my children, these picture books have made me more curious, knowledgeable, and appreciative about our planet. At a time when news headlines are rightly alarming us about the nearly irreversible dangers of climate change, these books instill in me a tiny grain of hope. With these books, we can get the next generation to care. We can make sure they know that this planet, our one beautiful home, is worth fighting for.

What a gift for our children to hone their observant eyes on the flowering tree, the squirmy worm, and the hummingbird’s work. What a gift for them to grow up with an appreciation for clean air and fresh water. What a gift for them to discover, early on, that young people have always been the drivers behind environmental activism.

In this vein, I am sharing four outstanding new non-fiction picture books with you today. The first two are focused specifically on the environmental movement, while the second two inspire awe about the biodiversity of Planet Earth, the reason we must fight so hard in the first place.

Titles span ages 4-10.

The Day the River Caught Fire: How the Cuyahoga River Exploded and Ignited the Earth Day Movement
by Barry Wittenstein; illus. Jessie Heartland
Ages 4-8

Did you know the Earth Day movement can be traced back to Cleveland, Ohio, to “a sticky and sunny Sunday in the summer of 1969” when the Cuyahoga River “did something rivers should never do”? Oh, the things we adults can learn from children’s books! Owing to the Industrial Revolution, the Cuyahoga River had developed such a “thick, gooey layer of sludge, oil, and sewage” that the sparks from a passing railcar actually caused the entire thing to go up in flames. This wasn’t the first time this had happened, but it was the first time that national headlines took notice. And once the people of Cleveland were called out for their stinky, smelly river, they ignited a movement to change it.

Using child-centric language and energetic illustrations ripe with discovery, The Day the River Caught Fire is storytelling at its best, framing today’s Earth Day celebrations against their larger historical context. We learn about the factors that contributed to the fiery “KABOOM,” including how at odds these factors were with what the river had been back when Indigenous groups canoed, swam, and fished in it. We learn about the dangerous complacency that had developed among the city folk—“It is what it is, people said: disgusting and gross”—and the way young people began to question whether industrial progress and a clean environment might not be mutually exclusive. We learn about Cleveland’s Carl Stokes, one of the first Black mayors of a major American city, and how he “declared war on pollution,” testifying in front of the U.S. Congress for the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts.

One year after the fire, on what became the first Earth Day—April 22, 1970—twenty million people across the country marched in protest, carrying signs and singing songs to raise awareness about the harm being done to our planet’s natural resources. “It was as if someone was shouting with a megaphone from high above: PEOPLE OF EARTH! YOU ARE RUNNING OUT OF TIME! WAKE UP!” And it worked: the Cuyahoga, for example, now has more than forty species of fish in it. This week, whether our children are participating in a day of service or a park clean-up, they now have the chance to see their actions as part of a larger movement, one with a proven record of success.

To Change a Planet
by Christina Soontornvat; illus. Rahele Jomepour Bell
Ages 4-8

In its simple but powerful introduction to climate change, To Change a Planet also highlights collective activism, the idea that alone we might not be able to make a difference, but joined with others we become a force to be reckoned with. Adopting a circular motif, the lyrical text, accompanied by bold gouache art in full-page spreads, makes the case for strength in numbers by revealing how we got to this point of crisis in the first place. A single person might seem “small, quiet, insignificant” against the vastness of the world, but “when one person, and one person, and one person become many, they can change a planet.” The illustrations show a rapid progression through time, culminating in crowds of people, construction traffic, and piles of downed trees alongside cramped pens of cattle.

In this same way, one molecule of carbon dioxide might seem “small, quiet, insignificant,” but when “millions and billions and trillions” are unleashed through cars and factories, “they trap and stifle, like a too-warm blanket.” Again, the illustrations fill in the gaps, revealing coral reefs drained of color, a baby polar bear cub separated from its mother on a melting ice cap, and extreme weather and wildfires.

As in the previous book, the tone here is ultimately empowering. By the math of power in numbers, we should be able to reverse the effects of climate change (if we act quickly). This time, when the book’s refrain comes back—“one person, and one person, and one person”—we see children watering new trees, families installing solar panels, teachers constructing urban gardens, and huge marches on Washington. (Sorry but not sorry, your kids are going to ask you to read every one of those signs.)

One World: 24 Hours on Planet Earth
by Nicola Davies; illus. Jenni Desmond
Ages 6-9

I squealed when I first saw this cover, because I’m a HUMONGOUS fan of Jenni Desmond’s mixed-media art, especially where animals are concerned. (The Elephant, The Polar Bear, and The Blue Whale have all made appearances on this blog and are huge favorites in our house.) Add to that Nicola Davies, who writes some of the most thoughtful narrative non-fiction, and you’ve got a dream team behind One World, a look at some of the awe-inspiring and fragile biodiversity across Planet Earth. And wowza, does it deliver! In fact, it not only provides a window into animal behavior and habitats, but it does so while fostering curiosity about geography and time zones!

The book opens with a clock about to strike midnight on April 21 in London, as a girl asks us to consider what different animals around the world might be up to at this very same moment. We watch as the child narrator and her sibling climb through a darkened bedroom window and are launched on an imaginative split-second journey around the world. First stop: the Arctic Circle, where it’s a bright 1:00am—the spring sun always up—and two polar bear cubs are waiting patiently for their mother to find them seals to eat.

On Gahirmatha Beach in India, it’s 5:30am, and baby sea turtles are hatching from their eggs, “steer[ing] themselves towards the sea” by moonlight. In Mutawintji National Park, Australia, it’s 10am, and the kangaroos’ water holes are drying up from extreme heat. On and on the girls travel—Antarctica and Hawaii and Ecuador and more—investigating life unfolding there and frolicking alongside their new animal friends before setting off again.

What’s emphasized at every stop isn’t just the animals’ behaviors but how those behaviors are evolving and adapting due to external factors. Much of this is bad news, with ecosystems threatened by raising temperatures, oil drilling, urbanization, or poaching. But there are glimpses of hope, too, of humans helping to repair and conserve. In Pantanal, Brazil (8pm), jaguars, previously targeted by farmers for hunting their cattle, are no longer being killed in high numbers, thanks to farmers switching up the kind of cows they keep. The book concludes with the girls’ vow to protect the wonders they’ve seen, because “they’re part of us and every breath we take.”

Round and Round Goes Mother Nature: 48 Stories of Life Cycles Around the World
by Gabby Dawnay & Margaux Samson Abadie
Ages 6-10

Each of the three books above can easily be read through in a single sitting. By contrast, Round and Round Goes Mother Nature is for the encyclopedic-minded kid, who likes to page through a fat book and pause to read different entries—and for the parent who is happy to oblige if the entries are as beautiful as they are informative. This oversized book, housed inside a gorgeous cloth-bound cover, is divided into four sections—Animals, Plants and Fungi, Earth, and Space—to detail 48 fascinating life cycles around the world. I assure you: there is nary a dry word in the 105 pages.

If I’m playing favorites, the animal section has my heart, showcasing the usual suspects, like the polar bear and honey bee, alongside ones that don’t often make an appearance in kid lit. The naked mole-rat! The mayfly! The anglerfish! (Get a load of this sub-title: “Out of the darkness looms a fanged monster, lit by its own dangling bioluminescent lantern.”) This spread about the luna moth might take the cake, though:

It’s not an easy task to make the subject of plants and fungi engaging to kids, but you’ll find nothing but success here. Speech bubbles help, allowing different species the chance to talk directly to the reader, as do the sequential panels, which distill information into bite-sized chunks. But the real star is the clever, dramatic text, seamlessly incorporated into rich, detailed illustrations boasting a range of stunning color palettes. In a spread about the Wood Wide Web, what scientists refer to as the underground communication system enabling trees to pass signals, the concept is introduced as, “whispers and gossips; the trees are eavesdropping on one another.”

Don’t discount the section on Earth, either, another mix of things we’d expect and things we wouldn’t. Volcanoes and tornadoes, yes, but how about a spread dedicated to the formation of diamond crystals? Here, we are encouraged to reflect on some of the longest life cycles. The section on Space is a bit scanty, but there are no shortage of books devoted to that topic. What’s fun here is having everything together, an impressive tribute to a planet that keeps us guessing as much as it holds us in awe.

Have you enjoyed this post? Make sure you don’t miss others! Enter your email on the right hand side of my homepage, and you’ll receive a new post in your inbox 3-4 times a month. Plus, follow me on Instagram (@thebookmommy), where I’m active most days, posting reviews and updates on what my kids are reading, or Facebook (What To Read To Your Kids) and Twitter (@thebookmommy).

Published by Simon & Schuster, Scholastic, Candlewick, and Wide Eyed Editions, respectively. All opinions are my own. Links support the beautiful Old Town Books, where I am the children’s buyer (and yes, we ship!).

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