Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Picture Books to Introduce the Young Naturalist to Winter

Back in December I read this article by Sara St. Antoine at The New Nature Movement, which discusses books as a powerful way of connecting children to nature and the outdoors. 

This passage especially caught my attention: 

This topic hit the news recently with the release of a study led by J. Allen Williams, Jr. of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. He and his research team looked at 296 children’s books—all Caldecott award winners from 1938 to 2008—and found a significant decline in representations of natural places and animals over the last two decades. They concluded, “These findings suggest that today’s generation of children are not being socialized, at least through this source, toward an understanding and appreciation of the natural world and the place of humans within it." 
Last winter my children were given The Big Snow by Berta and Elmer Hader, winner of the 1949 Caldecott Award. The delicate illustrations of animals indigenous to the American Northeast seem to come right out of a nature journal. 

The first half of the text is more educational than driven by narrative, as all the various animals prepare for winter by either migrating south, gathering food, or hunkering down in burrows. 

A story does start to form when a big snowstorm hits, and afterward all the resident animals who forage for food all winter are hungry and cut off from their natural food supply. It is then that an elderly couple come out of their warm home to toss out feed for the animals. 

Though 64 years old, this book remains a clear explanation of various strategies animals apply to survive winter, and a poignant example of how humans can act with empathy toward our fellow creatures. 

Recently I discovered another Caldecott winning book that teaches about a different aspect of winter as a natural phenomena: Snowflake Bentley, written by Jacqueline Briggs Martin, and illustrated by Mary Azarian, and published in 1998. 

The book tells the story of Wilson Bentley, a Vermont farmer whose obsession with snow drove him to become a self-taught snow expert and the first to capture the exquisite and short-lived beauty of snowflakes on film. The text includes sidebars with additional facts about Bentley's work, while Azarian's hand-colored, folksy woodcuts boldly bring the story to life. 

Both of these books more than fit the bill for what Sara St. Antoine is calling for in her article. Specifically, she longs for "stories that delve deep into a natural kingdom and show ordinary people making their way there" to "get kids excited about actual nature." 

I'm very fond of fantasy, science fiction, and superheroes. But I also see St. Antoine's concern if there's little-to-no children's literature that invites us to experience the natural world in a more direct and down to earth manner. 

In addition to The Big Snow and Snowflake Bentley, I encourage parents to check out St. Antoine's extensive list of books about nature and the outdoors, categorized by age group, and found at the end of her article

And for more recommendations and reviews of picture books specific to winter, check out these lists: 

Children's Picture Books for Winter, 2013 by Caryn at Three Books A Night 

Little Lions: Best Kids' Books About Winter from the New York Public Library on Mommy Poppins

Best Children's Picture Books About Winter and Snow by Elizabeth Kennedy on

Books That Inspire A Little Snow Adventure by Keryn Means on Walking On Travels 

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