Reading About Sustainability: Early Readers Edition!

Reading About Sustainability @trishtalksbooks
Early Readers Edition!

  • Stand Like A Cedar by Nicola I. Campbell, illustrated by Carrielynn Victor
  • The Fog by Kyo Maclear, illustrated by Kenard Pak
  • The Forest Keeper by Rina Singh, illustrated by Ishita Jain

After I explored some wonderful books about climate change and sustainability for middle-grade readers earlier this year, it seemed natural to take a look at books for the younger set. I know a lot of parents who are feeling unsettled by climate change and looking for a way to begin to introduce topics around the environment to their very young children in an age appropriate way. I was heartened by the offerings that I found at the library after doing a quick search, but I read a few books before I found the three that I’ll highlight this month. Many were good, but I particularly liked the art, writing and messages of these three. Each is targeted at a slightly different age group. Of course, I am not an early childhood educator so I write from the point of view of a mom of an adult child who has so much hope for the grit and moxy of the next generation.


Stand Like A Cedar by Nicola I. Campbell, illustrated by Carrielynn Victor

For ages 3-5
Highwater Press (2020)
“When you go for a walk in nature, who do you see? What do you hear?”
Nicola Campbell is Nłeʔkepmx, Syilx (Interior Salish) and Métis from the Nicola Valley, British Columbia. Her books have been nominated for awards, and she writes both adult and children’s fiction and non-fiction. She currently is an Assistant Professor in the Faculty of Indigenous Studies at the University of the Fraser Valley.

Carrielynn Victor is an artist located in the Fraser Valley, BC, a descendant of Coast Salish and Western European ancestors. She is a plant practitioner, and Manager of Cheam First Nation’s Environmental Consultancy.

Stand Like a Cedar is a gentle, quiet book that invites children to follow along through the seasons and come alive to nature. It’s a book of sights and sounds. People take their place as one creature among many that belong to “our land,” firmly a part of the earth, the plants, animals and natural elements.

Words fall off the tongue. In spring in a cedar canoe:
“We went paddling in our cedar canoe
one rainy, spring day.
Pouring rain was fresh on our skin and we paddled anyway.
The rush and sweep of gentle waves
Reminded us of the beauty of spring.”
The welcoming, inclusive language or “us” is one of belonging to the story, and to nature. On each page, there is a question related to the story that a child can learn about and see the image. For example, “Who do you hear?” and they discover that it’s the loon! Children are invited to investigate the animals, the sounds, the sights around them through these questions.

Questions and answers are often presented in Nle?kepmxcin or Halq’emeylem languages. Even if you don’t know how to pronounce the words, it is visually exciting and an opportunity to learn some new sounds and words, as there is a glossary at the end of the book.
“We are Indigenous.
We love to run, paddle our canoes, dance and play….
We are grateful for all living things.”
Here, the reader can learn about Indigenous ways, but the book also invites us to consider the land that we are all indigenous to now: small i. What grounds us? How do we feel connected to nature? What do we love to do in nature? How does nature sustain us? The salmon, the shoots and leaves, the deer are all crucial. And there is reciprocity: Grandfather deer reminds us of the life cycle, and to “take care of the land.”

The art showcases the beautiful quality of light on several pages; Victor captures a dynamic sense of motion in people and nature. The style is varied: sometimes realism, sometimes a cartoon vibe, and occasionally incorporating some First Nations art motifs.

Activities:
  • Learn some First Nations language and sounds.
  • Go outside and find the plants and animals around your home.
  • See the cycle of the seasons: What season is it? What comes next?


***



The Fog by Kyo Maclear, illustrated by Kenard Pak

Ages 4-8
Tundra Books (2017)

Kyo Maclear lives in Toronto and writes for children, as well as penning novels and essays for adults. She holds a doctorate in environmental humanities and is on the faculty of The Humber School For Writers and the University of Guelph Creative Writing MFA.

Kenard Pak started out as an animator and is now an author and illustrator who lives in San Francisco.

The Fog is in an enchanting book that takes us to the far north, “Icy Land,” where main character Warbler (a yellow warbler) is a “human watcher,” as they visit as tourists. This picture book is full of humour! I love the caricatures of the visiting humans such as “# 672 Bald-Headed Glitzy Guy.” There are lots on the book covers for young readers to explore.

One day a fog descends and doesn’t lift. This is new! Warbler wants to talk about it, but the other birds deny and minimise the mysterious weather. As readers, we can see the denial and minimization (“It’s just a little fog.”); the acceptance and excuses (“these things happen”) and identification with the change (“I like it”). Eventually no one notices it anymore, as if the fog had always been there. Even Warbler starts to wonder if things had ever been not-foggy.

Finally–thank goodness!– a girl comes who notices the fog. It’s really not normal. She and Warbler make a plan to send paper boat messages to everyone around the world. Seriously, has anyone else seen this weird fog? People send messages back: We see it, we want to fix it! The fog begins to lift.

There are so many excellent messages here. Before we can change things, we have to notice them. We must see change and not ignore it, and actively be observers of our earth and nature. Once we notice what is a problem, we can talk about it (there are echoes of Saving Us by Katharine Hayhoe) and make a plan to do something about it. In the book, with an intention to do something about it, “the fog began to lift a little. And the wind began to blow again until the world grew a little less ghostly and it became easier to notice things.” Noticing, naming and talking about it are the first steps to collective action and hope.

The Fog also begins to introduce metaphor to kids in an easy way. What is the fog? Perhaps our denial of climate change, our reluctance to bring up scary topics, our bias not to see things that frighten us. It’s natural, but not helpful. We clear the fog by noticing and accepting. Although the fog is centred around the ecosystem in the book, I think it works beautifully as an analogy for many things: feelings, bad moods, anger, sadness. The remedy is mindfulness.

The art in this book is one of contrasts: some bright colour for the main characters, and cartoon-esque figures for the fun caricatures against a muted, misty natural palette to showcase the natural world.

Activities:
  • Look up warblers and learn about them, and notice other types of birds outside
  • Learn about polar ice and how climate change is affecting it
  • Think about how animals and humans help each other
***


The Forest Keeper by Rina Singh, illustrated by Ishita Jain

Ages 5-9
NorthSouth Books (2023)

Rina Singh was born and raised in India and came to Canada as an adult, currently living in Toronto. She has an MFA in Creative Writing from Concordia University and has a teaching degree from McGill University. I cannot write about her better than she does on her own website. It’s one of the most readable bios I’ve seen, and geared to kids. Take a read!

Ishita Jain was born in India and now lives in New York. Her website says, “Her work is inspired by day to day moments, giant trees, shimmering spots of light and the wonder that comes from being around nature.”

For slightly older readers, The Forest Keeper is based on the true story of Jadav Molai Payeng, on the island of Majuli in Assam, India. He was 16 years old in 1979 and saw the devastation of a monsoon on a sandbar. He wanted to make a difference. He started by planting one tree, and over the years, he planted and maintained a forest that is home to a whole ecosystem. This book brings together some factors that I think are super important: the difference that one person can make; starting something small and achievable that can grow into something larger; and the importance of trees.

“Let there be trees!” proclaims that back cover of the book. So basic, and a wonderful environmental statement.

I like that the story is simple but nuanced, as it takes care to show and accept balance in things: the river is both a “blessing and a curse.” Elephants come to the forest, but because they are displaced, they can destroy things in the village if they don’t have enough food or habitat (though they are just as important as humans). Thus, we see the notion of consequence and responsibility, even if there aren’t easy answers.

The language is simple, with repetition that will appeal to the young:
“The forest came alive the day
the birds came.
Pelicans and thrushes.
Woodpeckers and peacocks.
Eagles and vultures.”
Jadav started the forest in 1979. Now, his forest is larger than Central Park in NYC, and a “migration corridor for a herd of more than a hundred elephants.” His endeavour was discovered in 2009, and he is now known as The Forest Man of India, and the forest is named after him as The Molai Forest.

The art is so vivid. The colours are truly stunning, we get a real sense of Javad and his moods, and his interaction with nature. The animals are beautifully drawn.

Activities:
  • Look at the map at the end of the book and locate the forest in India 
  • There is a wonderful teacher's guide with all sorts of fantastic ideas for readers at NorthSouth Books
***

So there you have it! My take on three fabulous books that spoke to me about the natural environment; noticing the flora, fauna and climate around us and talking about it; and hope that what we do can lead to change. I am inspired by the myriad of literature and beautiful art that is out there for early readers and their parents to learn about sustainability. Now that I’m attuned to it, I’ll try to notice more of the wonderful, environmentally-minded picture books that are being published.

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