Published in School Library Journal, January 2003
I can’t think of a novel of mine that was inspired by sheer irritation. Nonfiction is another story. When I heard one too many folks call a wasp a “bee,” a gorilla a “monkey,” and even a heron a “duck,” I got bugged enough to write A WASP IS NOT A BEE (Holt, 1995). Then there was the time at the Prospect Park Zoo when a little boy asked his mom why baboons have such big red butts. Despite a series of placards explaining the reason for these simian endowments, the mother loudly replied, “Because they’re sick.” Instead of howling at her, I came up with BOTTOMS UP!: A Book About Rear Ends (Holt, 1997).
What’s so important about taxonomic distinctions or the reproductive habits of animals? For that matter, why bother to study other creatures at all? The answer lies in how we view the world, in our ability to see ourselves as a part of the universe or as the center of it.
Scientists and naturalists have long told us that the living world is interconnected. No man is an island. Heck, no island is an island. What happens in one place may well affect a whole country, a continent, or the globe. The decimation of rain forests is an obvious and well-known example. Similarly, biologists, zoologists, and botanists speak of the importance of biodiversity. The loss of species may have widespread effects, some involving our own livelihood, well-being, even survival. Whether or not we know what those effects may be or what the “purpose” of a creature is, we do not have the moral or ethical right to cause its extinction—though in many cases we most certainly have the means.
We know all this, don’t we? We are concerned about it, right? The answer is yes—and no. I have long believed that we humans are generous, caring, and energetic, as well as selfish, greedy, and complacent—often all in a single day. We exhibit these traits in a wide variety of situations and toward a wide variety of subjects, but it seems to me that our contradictions are especially apparent with regard to the natural world. We love wild places, but crave oil, wood, meat, houses, shopping malls. We admire whales, elephants, wolves, eagles, but contribute to the destruction of their environment and their demise. We line up at zoos to see apes, sea lions, hippos, giraffes, but we ignore the warblers, butterflies, snakes, frogs in our own backyards.
How can we resolve our contradictions? We need to practice observation and self-assessment. We need to acquire knowledge, and that involves learning about beings other than ourselves and how we all fit together. To distinguish species, to know their names is to see that they are not interchangeable or replaceable. To study other creatures is to become fascinated with the beauty and complexity of the world and to be filled with a sense of wonder. Wonder is an antidote not only to cynicism, but also to complacency, narcissism, and greed. It helps put things in their proper perspective. It helps put us in our proper perspective. When we see ourselves as a small part of the whole, we become larger in intellect and in spirit.
How do we accomplish this? As a children’s book writer, I say start early—and start with books. All kinds of books. Jean Craighead George’s marvelous meldings of science and literature; Roland Smith’s ecological action novels; Joanne Ryder’s lyrical picture books; Jane Yolen’s rich, unsentimental poems about birds, Alice Schertle’s featuring cows, and Kristine O’Connell George’s on trees; and lots of informational nature books by the likes of Sneed Collard, Kathryn Lasky, Dorothy Hinshaw Patent, Laurence Pringle, Seymour Simon, and many others.
I want to stress poetry, my favorite thing to write, and informational books in particular to awaken and sustain a respect for nature. Good poetry is about seeing, really seeing (and hearing, smelling, tasting, touching), and doing so in unique ways. Good poetry uses the “ah” factor. Readers may not have viewed a robin, a waterfall, the fog in quite that way, but are surprised and delighted by the rightness of the poet’s images. This in turn encourages readers to look closely at the world around them and to notice what they haven’t noticed before.
Good poetry is also about specificity. William Carlos Williams said it best, in a famous poem, of course: “so much depends/upon/a red wheel/barrow/glazed with rain/water/beside the white/chickens.” A particular wheelbarrow, red, not blue; wet, not dry. A particular species—wasp, not bee; heron, not duck. Much depends on the details—maybe more than we can even know.
Details—of the factual kind—are abundantly found in informational books. They can be as enthralling as a poet’s images. True stories are as fascinating as invented ones. In “A Universe of Information: The Future of Nonfiction” (The Horn Book, November/December 2000), Betty Carter persuasively declares that good nonfiction books “have the power of bringing the real world, with all its wonder and history and imperfections and idiosyncratic inhabitants into a youngster’s consciousness. Even the very youngest children frequently find nonfiction as exciting as fictional stories.” But Carter goes on to say that children have repeatedly stated that “nonfiction reading isn’t considered real reading by many parents, teachers, and librarians. They confess they like particular books but can’t check them out because they have to get ‘something to read’ instead. That ‘something to read’ is invariably fiction.” If this is indeed true, it is a sad commentary on how nature and other nonfiction books are perceived, and it has far-reaching implications.
It seems to me that children who aren’t encouraged to read nature books are more likely to become adults who don’t read them either—and who also don’t buy them for their children. This is significant nowadays since publishers are most inclined to publish books that sell well to bookstores and not to institutional markets. Though there are many excellent nature books still being published, they tend to be geared to very young readers, with less text and more pictures. Nature books for middle-grade and teen readers are, in the words of Dorothy Hinshaw Patent, “becoming an endangered species.” If librarians, along with parents and teachers, are really relegating informational books to a lower status than fiction, the situation will only get worse. Fewer and/or less substantial nature books will be published and bought; fewer children—and adults—will learn about the wonder of nature through the joy of reading.
In these perilous times when more than half of the rain forests have been destroyed; 40 million acres of coral reefs have been killed; countless species are threatened; and our own government is engaged in deliberations over drilling in the Arctic Wildlife Preserve, mining in the Everglades, and burying nuclear waste in Yucca Mountain, NV, it is my firm belief that we need to publish and promote nature books more than ever. One organization that understands this idea is the Chicago Library System, which sponsors the innovative project NatureConnections.
This 15-year-old project brings nature to children through its huge collection of books and other materials; through programs that include visits with live animals, gardening, dinosaur study, and nature sketching; and through collaborative exhibits, events, and projects with zoos, botanic gardens, museums, and other educational institutions. Not only does NatureConnections give kids opportunities to read about and to observe nature, but it also helps professionals come up with creative concepts for using these books in the classroom—ideas ranging from building a walk-through rain forest to Batmania, which encourages kids to go batty over bats, to Enviro-Mania, an all-day celebration of young people’s efforts to protect the environment. As coordinator Elizabeth McChesney says, “We help children find the awe and appreciation of the real world around them.”
Into this pool of ideas, I’d like to toss a few of my own: nature trivia contests à la Jeopardy or Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?; Wacko Nature Fact of the Day, presented by librarians/teachers who dash into a classroom to surprise the students or by the students themselves; nature scavenger hunts; Come as Your Favorite Species Day; Come as the Most Misunderstood Species Day. The possibilities are endless and exciting.
At the American Library Association 2002 Annual Conference in Atlanta, we had a chance to share some of these possibilities at “Children’s Books and the Natural World,” a panel I conceived and moderated. The enthusiastic audience interacted with esteemed authors Jean Craighead George, Dorothy Hinshaw Patent, and Seymour Simon; Holiday House editor Mary Cash; and librarian Elizabeth McChesney. One eager attendee asked what we authors could do to promote our books in libraries. Turning the question around, we said, “What can you do to promote them?” It is this challenge that I pose to those reading this article. If met, it will bolster young readers’ sense of wonder about the natural world. It will help preserve this world. And it will insure that never again will I need to write a book out of sheer irritation.