In honor of Blog Action Day, all the books recommended today have something to do with the environment. "The Environment" is a pretty big, abstract concept, especially for kids. These books all do something to make that concept concrete. Mostly they're not treatises on global warming or any other specific environmental crisis; instead, they do what books do best: tell stories, bring characters to life, and help us understand that the big picture is made up of many small pieces.
Aani and the Tree Huggers, by Jeannine Watkins.
Aani, a young girl in rural India, marshalls the girls and women of her village to join forces and stop the nearby trees--a precious natural resource for the villagers--from being cut down. The story, which is based on true events, is told clearly and directly; when the women literally hug the trees to stop them from being felled, it's easy to see how much courage this simple action took. And the illustrations, by Venantius J. Pinto, are striking and rich.
Pearl Moscowitz's Last Stand, by Arthur A. Levine. [out of print, alas]
Another picture book about taking action to save trees, but with a very different setting. Mrs. Moscowitz has seen her neighborhood change: from Jewish, to African-American, to Latino, to Asian. But she's still there, and so is the gingko tree that her mother saw planted many decades ago. When a man from the city comes with official orders to have the tree cut down, Pearl and her neighbors try to distract him, first with plates of food, then with overloaded wallets of family photos. Finally, Mrs. Moscowitz chains herself to the tree, bringing on the TV cameras and saving the day.
Henry Hikes to Fitchburg, by D. B. Johnson.
What's the faster way to get from Concord to Fitchburg: walking? Or taking the train? Henry, an amiable bear, poses this question to his friend, and they try it out: The friend works all day to earn the train fare, while Henry spends the same time walking to Fitchburg through fields, gathering flowers, and picking blackberries. This first volume in a series of four stories about Henry is based on a passage in Henry David Thoreau's journals, and is a great way to start kids thinking about the way people live (and don't live) our values through how we choose to spend our time and energy.
If the World Were a Village, by David Smith
The concepts in this book pack quite a wallop and could keep a family or a class busy thinking and discussing for days. The premise is simple: If the entire population of the world was represented by a village of only 100 people, how many would speak English? How about Chinese? How many would be children, and how many adults? How long would each person's life expectancy be? How many would have clean, safe water to drink? The answers are often surprising and sometimes sobering, and bring the issue of population growth and its effect on the earth into striking focus.
Material World, by Peter Menzel et. al.
Like If the World were a Village, this book takes a simple concept and uses it to completely crack your head open. It's brilliant: a team of photographers travelled around the world, finding one "average" family in each of over 30 countries and photographing that family surrounded by all their material possessions. The logistics involved must have been tremendous, and the contrasts are fascinating. Aside from the photo-essays on each family, there are pages devoted to individual items: televisions of the world, typical meals around the world, and (always a favorite among kids) toilets of the world. It's an eye-opener--literally--to see the evidence of how many millions of people get along the sheer amount of stuff that's amassed by many people in Western countries.
I have to admit that this is my favorite title of any on this list. Though it's not technically a children's book, I've used it many times with 4th, 5th, and 6th grade classes, and the kids are always fascinated and fight to check it out.