The difficulty with compiling this list of 10 picture books for children on the subject of the natural world, farming and the environment was not coming up with the titles, but with eliminating them. Our list could easily have been twice, probably four times, as long. Thanks for help compiling it from Portland Public Library’s children’s librarian Carrie Hummel, Portland resident and children’s book consultant Kirsten Cappy of Curious City, mom and Source reporter Mary Pols, children’s book author Leslie Kimmelman (who happens to be the Source editor’s sister), and Source family columnist Laura McCandlish.

Our list is somewhat Maine-centric, including, for one, Philip Hoose, who lives in Portland, co-wrote “Hey, Little Ant” with his daughter Hannah and worked for the Nature Conservancy for 37 years until retiring last year. Asked what books influenced his own thinking about the environment when he was a child, he instantly named the 1936 classic, “The Story of Ferdinand.”

“It didn’t have to do with natural systems. It just had to do with a bull that didn’t want to fight. (Writer) Munro Leaf was not Rachel Carson Jr. He was someone who gave us a creature who would rather sit beneath a cork tree and look at the clouds than go gore a matador,” Hoose said. “I’m 67 and I read that book probably 61 years ago and it’s stuck with me to this day. It has been meant more to me than probably any environmental book I ever wrote or read. ‘Hey Little Ant’ is a descendant of Ferdinand. ‘To squish or not to squish, that is the question.’ There is a great case to be made for ‘not to squish.’ It’s about empathy. The natural world, unfortunately, is ruled by one species… and it’s us. Just writing about other creatures and other systems isn’t enough. In a way, you have to write about us, and our choices and our empathies and can we or can we not recognize our commonalities with an ant and with a bull?”

It’s a good question for the grownups, too.

“Time of Wonder”
written and illustrated by Robert McCloskey (1957)
When I asked local friends to recommend children’s books about sustainability, every last one of them brought up McCloskey works, from “One Morning in Maine” to “Blueberries for Sal.” Which was unexpected, because really, they’re more about life in Maine than sustainability per se. But maybe not so odd; I’d already designated “Time of Wonder” as a must-have for this list, and it too speaks to a love and understanding of the land and change, an ideal combination to instill in your child an appreciation for the natural world.
Specifically “Time of Wonder” is about seasons and about saying goodbye to island summer in Maine, and how shared experience builds a family. After a summer of joys, including jumping off a rock warm from the sun, a rock that was “icy cold when a glacier covered it with grinding weight,” a hurricane sweeps in. The fear it awakens is assuaged by Mother reading a story. “You are glad it is a story you have often heard before.” The people and the land survive and the family packs to go, because “It is time to reset the clock from the rise and fall of the tide, to the come and go of the school bus.”
McCloskey, who would have celebrated his 100th birthday this month, knew how to slay his reader with a single perfect line, reminding us all of the importance of wondering, even after summer is long over. Like for instance “Where do hummingbirds go in a hurricane?” Brave men and women I know weep for this story. Rightly so. — MARY POLS
“Miss Rumphius”
written and illustrated by Barbara Cooney (1982)
A girl named Alice grows into a woman, becomes a librarian, travels the world and comes home Miss Rumphius, grown and ready to do what her grandfather advised her she must do with her life – “something to make the world more beautiful.” She has no idea what, until one spring she sees how the birds have carried her lupine seeds and spread the beauty of her flowers over a hill. She buys seed and begins to seed her community with the lupine. OK, it’s not an edible you’d see at the farmer’s market, and some people believe lupine to be an invasive plant. (In Maine, no one has seen a true wild lupine since 1967, but our roadside lupine is considered a naturalized plant. But the Western lupine is considered invasive here.) On the plus side, the nitrogen-fixing lupine, which grows best in lousy soil, improving it with each June, is not just a pretty staple of our New England roadsides; it can be a gardener’s aid. Cooney is one of the greats, less famous maybe than McCloskey, but a key component of any child’s bookshelf. Try her “Island Boy” if you want to read your children a charming and wistful history lesson set on the coast of Maine. ­— MP
“Hardscrabble Harvest”
written and illustrated by Dahlov Ipcar (1976). Reissued 2009 by Islandport
Let’s pause to appreciate Islandport Press for re-releasing this Maine treasure’s beautiful picture books, many of them as closely linked to the our land as McCloskey’s and Cooney’s. Ipcar is the daughter of renowned sculptor William Zorach and artist Marguerite Zorach. Her first book project was illustrating author Margaret Wise Brown’s “The Little Fisherman,” published in 1945, but since then she has both written and illustrated many books. “Hardscrabble Harvest” makes the list because of the way it tells, with vivid humor and lively, crisply mid-century modern illustrations, the story of farm life and how hard it is to get a harvest out of the ground. “The farmer plants early in the spring. He’ll be lucky if he harvests a thing.” Your child won’t think for a minute that she or he is getting a lecture on the struggles of agriculture, but the next time you’re at a farmers market, it’s likely that young readers will appreciate the hard work of those farmers selling tomatoes, apples and pumpkins. Try her “One Horse Farm” and “Farmyard Alphabet,” also available from Islandport, and “Brown Cow Farm” as well (Down East Books). And if your child wonders about the work of Maine lobsterman, look no farther than “Lobsterman.” — MP
“The Lorax”
written and illustrated by Dr. Seuss (1971)
Dr. Seuss’ fable of the short-term profit/long-term cost of unsustainable exploitation and how the hope for a better tomorrow is in the hands of (hopefully) enlightened youngsters stands the test of time.
For it’s a little boy, in all his wide-eyed innocence, who hears the belated lament of the guilt-ridden aging Once-ler. The Once-ler despoiled an Eden-like place to produce the thoroughly needless “thneeds” out of the Truffula trees that had sustained all kinds of marvelous critters.
Notwithstanding the pleas of the Lorax (“I speak for the trees”), the Once-ler develops ever more efficient ways of decimating the forest and building a mega-factory that pollutes air and water, causing fish and fauna to flee.
But there’s a glimmer of hope – albeit with the longest of odds – as the Once-ler bequeaths the last remaining Truffula seed to the little boy. And the Lorax’s departing message, “Unless” etched in stone, speaks for itself.
— NEIL COTE
“10 Things I can Do to Help My World”
written by Melanie Walsh (2008)
This book gets younger children off on the right foot making choices their parents will likely cheer for more than just environmental reasons. They’re told, for example, that turning off the lights when leaving a room will save energy, but parents know this small gesture will also help lower the electric bill. Kids will like the cut-out, interactive illustrations, and the little-known facts sprinkled throughout the book: Turning off the water when they are brushing their teeth saves 18 glasses of water. Explanations for why children should, for example, feed birds in the winter save the book from becoming preachy. — MEREDITH GOAD
“The Little Island”
by Margaret Wise Brown, illustrated by Leonard Weisgard (1946)
A lesser-known classic from the “Goodnight Moon” author. A kitten from a sailboat disembarks on a tiny smidge of an island in a place that looks a lot like Maine. He engages in an argument about the worth of the island, which the kitten believes is not part of the “big world.” “Water is all around you and cuts you off from the land,” the kitten tells the island. The retort is fast and wise: “Ask any fish.” The seasons and storms pass and the inhabitants of the island – seven little fireflies, a bat, an owl, seven big trees and 17 small bushes – survive and thrive and take pleasure from being “a part of the world and a world of its own.” The illustrations are by Leonard Weisgard, who collaborated with Wise Brown over several decades, although not on “Goodnight Moon.” Again with the islands. Do we seem fixated? Blame that on a childhood in Maine. — MP
“Henry Hikes to Fitchburg”
written and illustrated by D.B. Johnson (2000)
Spinning a highly entertaining book for children off a Henry David Thoreau quote may seem an unlikely scenario; the Walden Pond deep thinker isn’t obviously kid-friendly. But this story about taking the time to enjoy the journey is quite special. “I have learned that the swiftest traveler is he that goes afoot,” Thoreau wrote in “Walden,” speaking of a debate he might have with a friend over taking a journey to Fitchburg via train instead of walking. Johnson reimagines the debate using a pair of bears. The one named Henry sets out on a ramble across the Sudbury River, pressing flowers along the way, making a walking stick and enjoying a hive filled with honey. His friend labors to earn the money for the train fare, including cleaning out Mrs. Thoreau’s chicken house, and rushes from place to place. The world of the industrial age versus the natural world is beautifully illustrated and in the end it all comes out just as you might expect. The train gets Henry’s friend to Fitchburg faster but Henry’s experience is richer all around. — MP
“Seeds of Change”
by Jen Cullerton Johnson, illustrated by Sonia Lynn Sadler (2010)
The true-life story of Wangari Maathai, founder of the “Green Belt Movement” and the first African woman and environmentalist to win a Nobel prize, Seeds of Change begins with Maathai’s mother teaching her about the mugumo tree and its wild figs – the number of creatures the tree feeds and protects, and its place in Kikuyu culture. Maathai is able to get the education most Kenyan girls are denied, some of it in the United States, and eventually returns to her home country only to find that her precious mugumo trees have been cut down. This devastating loss drives her to plant more trees, and along the way she also becomes a champion of the rights of women and children. “We might not change the big world,” Maathai says, “but we can change the landscape of the forest.” Once jailed for her beliefs, Maathai rises to become Kenya’s Minister of the Environment. Her story will be particularly interesting to little girls, who may not realize there are still places in the world where people are not as valued simply because of their gender. — MG
“Hey, Little Ant”
by Philip M. Hoose and Hannah Hoose, illustrated by Debbie Tilley (1998)
To squish or not to squish? That is the question. “Hey, Little Ant,” written by Mainer Philip Hoose and his daughter Hannah (when she was just 9), is a morality tale featuring a face-off between a little boy and an ant he is about to obliterate with his sneaker – for no other reason than that he can. The story is told in engaging rhymes: “Anyone knows that ants can’t feel/You’re so tiny and you don’t look real.” The boy tries to justify stepping on the ant, who is carrying a crumb of pie back to his nest, by arguing that ants steal food. The ant fires back that other ants are depending upon him for their survival, and a single potato chip from a human picnic could feed his entire community. The book is basically the Golden Rule, seen from an ant’s-eye level: “I can see you’re big and strong/Decide for yourself what’s right and wrong/If you were me and I were you/What would you want me to do?” The decision – to squish or not to squish – is left in your child’s hands, opening up all kinds of opportunities for discussion. Does might make right? Is it fair that the biggest and strongest among us gets the most resources? Does even the tiniest creature deserve a place on the planet? — MG
“Owl Moon”
written by Jane Yolen, illustrated by John Schoenherr (1987)
On a snowy, moonlit night, “long past my bedtime,” a girl’s father takes her owling. A train whistle blows, a farm dog answers it with his sad song, and in the quiet dream of this late night, father and daughter walk into the woods. She is finally old enough to experience the special magic of seeking out the Great Horned Owl. “My brothers all said, sometimes there is an owl and sometimes there isn’t,” the girl tells us. She reminds herself continually that she must be quiet, out of respect for the owl and his place in these woods, a place he has earned throughout the ages. When they do find the owl, and the father calls out to it, the owl answers, then lifts off and flies over them in its overwhelming magnificence. “We watched silently with heat in our mouths, the heat of all those words we had not spoken.” What the reader hopes, finishing this extraordinarily poetic book, is that there will always be at least that hope of “sometimes.” When there are books like this, you don’t have to preach to your kids about the need to sustain the world we have. They’ll just get it. — MP

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