Earth Day 2017 may have passed, but I’m a firm believer in the notion that, as many bumper stickers like to so succinctly put it, Earth Day is every day. I’ve been keeping my eye out for picture books—the fictional, story-time types, that is—that get children thinking about this planet we live on and how to best take care of it. It’s tough: no one wants to read a book wagging its finger in your face, so some picture books handle this better than others. Let’s look at three of them today.
First up is the most explicitly message-conveying one of the trio, though it altogether delivers the point with a lack of heavy-handedness. Kyo Maclear’s The Fog, illustrated by Kenard Pak and coming to shelves in mid-May, is all about an ice-covered island in the far north to which tourists love to flock. One small yellow warbler likes to people-watch—the endpapers, in fact, are filled with entertaining numbered sketches of some of the people he sees—until the day that a “ghostly” heavy fog rolls in, clouding his vision. The fog is persistent, and only he (and the ducks) seem to care. Icy Land is now Fog Land: it is actually re-named that, per the sign that welcomes tourists when they arrive. “Many of the birds began to forget that there was ever a time before fog,” Maclear writes. The warbler no longer even sees any humans.
Until one day when he spots #673, a Red-Hooded Spectacled Female (Juvenile), a young girl in a red jacket who “looked a bit lost.” The two of them communicate via chirps and origami, but most importantly, this girls sees the fog too. They set out to sea with folded-paper notes, shaped into boats that they set out onto the water, asking if other creatures can also see the fog. They get responses (when you find your own copy of this book, make special note of the laugh-aloud feline response) from across the way, various animals holding up signs and notes arriving from around the world.
After that, “the fog began to lift a little.” It’s as if Maclear is communicating to readers, albeit with the lightest of touches, that the first step to taking care of our crowded planet, which we humans are polluting by the second, is to notice. Come for the charming bird-girl friendship; stay for Pak’s soft-focus, velvety artwork.
Gerald Kelley’s Please Please the Bees is a delightful surprise in many ways. It essentially tells the story of Benedict, an anthropomorphic bear (he’s not clothed, but he otherwise lives as a human) and a “creature of habit [who] liked to do the same thing every day.” These habits include honey – and lots of it. Needless to say, he’s a fan. The problem is that he doesn’t really think through his actions and the effects they have on others around him.
Benedict eats so much honey, and so heedlessly, that the bees quite literally go on strike. When Benedict tells a tiny bee—holding up a “strike!” sign, no less (an unforgettable and very funny image)—that he should be grateful for the “few jars of honey” he consumes, the insect angrily lays out for the bear the bees’ “lousy working conditions.” Benedict realizes he’s been selfish: “I never thought about what the bees need.” He sets out to make things right.
What we have here is a picture book all about resistance, protesting, and even labor strikes in the name of employee grievances. It’s a worthy successor, indeed, to the granddaddy of all picture books on such topics, Doreen Cronin’s Click, Clack, Moo: Cows That Type (a 2001 Caldecott Honor book), illustrated by Betsy Lewin. But those teachers or parents wanting to address the environmental causes behind the loss of American honeybee colonies would be wise to pick up a copy of this one too, not to mention it’s a great book for discussions about where our food comes from. It’s funny and thought-provoking, and Kelley’s expressive paintings are sunny and warm.
Last, but far from least, is Richard Jackson’s All Ears, All Eyes, which was released in March, is illustrated by Katherine Tillotson, and is one of the most beautiful books you’ll see this year. The starred Kirkus review calls this tribute to the woods at night “dazzling,” and that about covers it. But let’s not stop there.
This is a book that hardly professes to be about environmental care, yet it communicates such reverence for—and wonder about—the natural world that it makes the best possible case for protecting it all. The author and illustrator invite readers into the “dim-dimming woods” at twilight. As the day grows longer, it gets darker – and so does the palette of Tillotson’s magnificent, textured artwork. Jackson’s evocative text swoops and swirls, both in the reader’s ear, given the spare and lilting language, and on the page, given the book’s playful design. (You can see an example of the curving text lines on the cover.) This is one of those picture books that reminds me why I love them – picture books, that is, as the unique, innovative, and experimental art form they are. The seamless merging of text and art in this elegant collaboration is beguiling, making this one to linger over.
There is an immediacy to the whole affair, as we move deeper into the forest, watching animals move and communicate in the wonder and splendor of the woods at night. We “sail” to sleep at the book’s close—indeed, I can’t imagine a better send-off to dreaming—and readers will also leave the story with a deep respect for the natural world from which we come.
Mother Nature would be proud.
Julie Danielson (Jules) conducts interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog primarily focused on illustration and picture books.