How to save the planet - and keep sloths happy

July 19

It’s a cliché that the future of our planet depends on us instilling in our children an understanding of, and love for, nature. The more ways we can engage children in the world around them, the better. Only one of the books which I’ve selected for this issue of Salad Days is a campaigning book but all of them will inspire children to observe nature more closely and, thereby, to fall in love with it. They aren’t activity books (if you’re looking for one of those, I reviewed a couple of lovely ones in the last issue) but the summer holidays are a fabulous opportunity to take books outside …

The first is i-spy Nature. I didn’t know that this series still existed, but it is just as good as it ever was, with that competitive element of nature-spotting which appeals to many children. I-spy Nature covers a range of habitats but there are more specific topics e.g. ‘At the Seaside’, ‘Birds’ or ‘Creepy-crawlies’. 1000 spotter points still wins you a certificate and badge …

Having spotted the abundance of species, children who want to understand more about how there came to be such variety will enjoy Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species retold and illustrated by Sabina Radeva. This is a lovely picture-book for the under-12s which introduces readers to Darwin and some of his key phrases and ideas, capturing his exhilaration at the variety of life and explaining in simple language how his theory of evolution developed. Importantly, it makes clear how intently Darwin observed the natural world and how he asked questions. There are still plenty of unanswered questions for children, the scientists of the future, to ask – as Darwin recognised: “In the distant future I see open fields for far more important researches … Light will be thrown on the origin of man and his history”.

For younger children, the very beautiful A Walk Through Nature peek-through book by Libby Walden is a joy. I didn’t realise at first that the main narrative is in rhyme, with supplementary non-rhyming text. The rhyming is subtle but compelling and children will love the rhythms. “Many trees and flowers / begin life as a seed. /An oak tree was an acorn, /a pod becomes milkweed” 

Each page illustrates part of nature – ‘From Tiny Seeds’, ‘Miniscule Marvels’, ‘Changing Colour’ for example – and the page then folds out with a more detailed picture and further notes about the subject. The youngest children will simply enjoy the verses and illustrations while older children can be introduced to the more complex information. 

I think the illustrations are a combination of painting and collage. They are certainly very appealing and may even inspire children to make habitat collages of their own.

Also in rhyme and also absolutely gorgeous is The Proper Way to Meet a Hedgehog and Other How-To Poems selected by Paul B Janeczko and illustrated by Richard Jones. The title alone was enough to entice me but the poems inside (from around the world and through history) are wonderful and witty and the illustrations are perfect. This is one of those ‘every household should have one’ books. The How-to’s range from a brilliant way of distinguishing Bactrian from Dromedary camels to how to ride a new bike. My favourite poem is last in the book. It is called ‘How to Pay Attention’. It goes ‘Close this book. / Look.’ What a powerful message in just four words! 

More rhymes and more understanding of nature in Bringing the Rain to Kapiti Plain by Verna Aardema and illustrated by Beatriz Vidal. This is a Kenyan folktale which has been retold in the compelling rhythms and cumulative shape of ‘The House that Jack Built’. The juxtaposition of unfamiliar subject (a young African cattle herdsman desperate for rain to make the grass grow for his cattle) and familiar nursery rhyme rhythm will fascinate children, opening their eyes to environmental problems being faced around the world. Here’s an example of the delicious rhymes from the opening which describes the Kapiti Plain before the rains failed: ‘… With acacia trees for giraffes to browse on, / And grass for the herdsman to pasture their cows on.’. Very hard to resist rolling those words around on your tongue!

If this is getting too poetic, let’s come back down to earth with What do they do with all that Poo? by Jane Kurtz illustrated by Alison Black. Actually, this is also in rhyme, but of a somewhat more earthy nature. This is where the first of the sloths in my title come in: ‘Sloths creep down from trees to poo / but only once a week. / A penguin shoots its poo out / in a fishy-smelling streak’. Like A Walk Through Nature above, this book combines simple catchy rhymes with additional text (in the case of sloths, it is to ask ‘why do sloths spend so much energy leaving the protection of trees to poo on the ground. It’s a mystery scientists are trying to solve.’

With bold bright illustrations, the book describes not only some of the different forms of animal poo but also what zoos do with it all – something I’d never thought about. It has various afterlives – from compost for courgettes to one which I also heard about at a lecture the other day: ‘They send some to vets / and to scientists, too. / Then zoo poo is studied to help out the zoo’. The notes explain that poo can reveal the health of an animal and that, furthermore, some zoos are experimenting with using poo to produce bio-gas to power their zoo vehicles and buildings. 

I like the fact that this book exploits the fascination which poo holds for children by encouraging them to think one stage further and consider the problem of waste disposal and its possible repurposing – obviously a current global concern.

Another global concern, of course, is plastic. There’s a super book out called No. More. Plastic. What you can do to make a difference by Martin Dorey, founder of the #2minutesolution. Dorey founded the Beach Clean Network and followed it up with the hashtag which encourages people to pick up litter for two minutes, bag it and bin it. This book continues the clean-up beyond our beaches with a series of easy-to-implement small lifestyle changes which can make a big difference. It has a section specifically aimed at children but the whole book is very accessible and children will be able to adopt many of the suggestions – for example, not buying fast fashions but developing a knack of spotting bargains in charity shops, not using cotton buds, campaigning for school drinking fountains to be re-introduced, giving up balloons – and thinking of three different ways that a party could be decorated without balloons or plastic decorations. Children can lead their families in making these small changes – and environmental activists are born (and the planet has a slightly better chance of survival).

Four young environmental activists are the stars of Swimming Against the Storm, a novel by Jess Butterworth. Eliza and her younger sister have lived all their lives in a small fishing village in South Louisiana. But with sea levels rising and with unscrupulous oil companies undermining the swampland around their village with their drilling, their home is at risk of being swept away. They know that governments have a duty to preserve the habitats of rare species so the girls and their friends go searching for the legendary swamp-living loup-garou. If they can prove that it exists, their community may be saved. 

This is a great and believable adventure story with an engaging cast of characters even without the environmental twist. With it, it sends a powerful message to children that their voices can be heard, and that they can make a difference – as the headlines about the teenage Swedish activist Greta Thunberg have shown. A good read for 8-12-year olds.

One more sloth. Slow Samson by local author Bethany Christou. Samson is a sloth. He loves parties but moves so slowly through the forest on his way to them, taking care to help the various creatures he meets along his journey, that he is always too late for the cake and the fun. This makes him very sad. His friends come up with an ingenious solution.

This is not ostensibly a picture book about environmental action or activists, but you could argue that it is about how we should respect the individual characteristics of different species (as did Darwin - and as do environmentalists). Or you could argue that it is simply about being kind to one’s friends and fellow creatures. Is there a difference? 

I hope this selection of books will absorb the children in your care during the summer, and inspire them as naturalists, engaged with their world. As Darwin said, ‘Whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning, endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been and are being evolved.’

All these books are on the shelves at Hart’s Books in Saffron Walden (www.hartsbooks.co.uk).

Books chosen by Jo Burch, founder of Words in Walden

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