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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Boom in Kids Enviro Books

Air Date: Week of

Phyllis Joffe reports on the boom in books on the environment for children. From fictional stories to how-to books, environmental titles are the fastest-growing segment of a rapidly-growing industry. The demand is coming from parents and teachers, but also from kids themselves.


CURWOOD: For years nature books and animal stories have been staple items in the billion-dollar-a-year children's book industry. Books such as Charlotte's Web and Where the Wild Things Are grace children's shelves around the world. But increasingly, kids' books are going beyond the cute and fuzzy and spooky to present works about the serious environmental challenges and changes we all face. The environment has become a big growth area for children's books, partly because parents and teachers are more concerned about it, and partly because the children themselves are demanding it. Phyllis Joffe of Connecticut Public Radio reports.

(Sound of kids in classroom)

LUCKS: Because if you litter, the Earth is gonna become a bad place to live in. And you could get sick, and people could die, and the Earth wouldn't be a good place to live and you'd have nowhere to go.

JOFFE: Nine-year-old Nicholas Lucks says he didn't pay so much attention to littering, until his fourth-grade class spent several weeks this spring studying ecology and the environment.

LUCKS: I was throwing away lots of things you could recycle, plastic, other things. But then when I heard what plastic and things could do to the world, I started recycling.

JOFFE: Nicholas and his classmates learned about recycling from some of the colorful picture books displayed prominently in one corner of the room. Teacher Diane Powell introduced ecology to her class at Jefferson School in New Britain, Connecticut two years ago, with a book called 50 Simple Things Kids Can Do To Save the Earth. Last year she added a second book. Now there are a dozen.

POWELL: Each year I do it, it grows and gets bigger and bigger.

JOFFE: Throughout the country, teachers such as Diane Powell are substituting more and more trade books -- books normally found on store and library shelves -- for traditional textbooks.

CLARK: The Great Kapok Tree, a tale of the Amazon rainforest, by Lynne Cherry. Two men walked in the rainforest. Moments before the forest had been alive with sounds of squawking birds and howling monkeys. Now all was quiet as the creatures watched the two men and wondered why they had come. The larger man stopped and pointed to the great kapok tree. Then he left. The smaller man took the ax and carried it. It struck the trunk of the tree -- whack, whack, whack . . . (Fade under)

JOFFE: Nine-year-old Candy Clark is reading from The Great Kapok Tree, a lavishly illustrated story about a woodcutter and animals in a Brazilian rainforest who plead with him not to chop down their home.

CLARK: Then the huge snake slid very close to the man. He hissed in his ear some more. "This tree is (unintelligible) , it is my home where (Whisper: "generations" ) generations of my ancestors have lived. Do not chop it down."
CHERRY: If he doesn't cut down the tree, this one individual saves this entire ecosystem and all these animals in the book, and if he cuts it down he destroys it.

JOFFE: Lynne Cherry wrote and illustrated The Great Kapok Tree.

CHERRY: I say this to the children when I go to the schools that one person can make an enormous difference for good or bad. and I know children are picking up on this lesson from the letters I've been receiving.

JOFFE: Author Lynne Cherry was an environmental activist in New England before she began publishing children's nature books eleven years ago.

CHERRY: The reason that I concentrate on books for children is because I think it's really important to shape their values and get them to think in terms of being a responsible human being on the planet, but because also once they start realizing these things, they go home and they discuss these issues with their parents, and so the way we live becomes a subject of debate and maybe people can think about, well, how can they change their behavior to not be so wasteful?

JOFFE: The Great Kapok Tree sold out its first printing shortly after publication in 1990. It has become one of the most popular environmental books for children, with sales in the six figures. As the children's book editor for the trade magazine Publishers Weekly, Diane Roback has watched environmental books proliferate over the past three years. She says that, unlike other books bought primarily by adults for children, the demand for nature books is fueled by children themselves.

ROBACK: Children have really latched onto the issue of the importance of environmental awareness, and they've made the cause their own, it isn't something that's being pushed on them by teachers or by parents, necessarily, so yes, publishers are now looking for more material to publish, but I think more writers are thinking of that category as something they could write for children.

JOFFE: Roback says the books have become more sophisticated and diverse over the past three years. While the market for direct-action activity books, such as 50 Simple Things Kids Can Do To Save The Earth, appears to have peaked, Roback says the best, and best-selling, books these days are the ones that are both scientific and artful.

ROBACK: Going from the, really the eye-popping, there's weird nature books, fantastic phenomena that occur, books that really grab you visually, then to Eyewitness, the wonderful Eyewitness series that present very good solid information that's very important for children to have as a basis, then you get into sort of a middle ground area where information is starting to take on a bit of story to make it more interesting. Instead of a book about a red fox, you might have a fictional red fox, and so you would incorporate information about its lifestyle, its habitat, and all those kind, what it eats, those kinds of things, but it's mixing story and science, and sometimes that's done beautifully and sometimes it's atrocious. And then past that, you have pure fiction that's based on solid knowledge.

JOFFE: Roback estimates that of the thousands of new children's books published each year, a couple dozen could officially be categorized as environmental. But nature themes are finding their way into other books as well.

ROHMER: The day Lucia Zenteno arrived, everyone in the village was astonished. No one knew where she came from, yet they all saw that she was amazingly beautiful, and that she brought thousands of dancing butterflies and brightly-colored flowers on her skirts. . .

JOFFE: The Woman Who Outshone the Sun is published by Children's Book Press, a nonprofit company in Emeryville, California, specializing in bilingual and multicultural picture books. Harriet Rohmer is the company's publisher.

ROHMER: A lot of the books that we have worked on have been stories from indigenous communities either here in North or in Latin America. And one of the most important issues for indigenous people in the Americas is the question of the land, so it's inevitable that almost any meaningful story from indigenous peoples is going to touch on what we now call ecological issues.

JOFFE: Children's Book Press donates dozens of books each year to schools attended by children of migrant farmworkers. Rohmer says the company wants to encourage young people to help change the world.

ROHMER: A lot of the children we work with do come from migrant farmworker backgrounds. They have a lot to say about ecology, use of pesticides. They're very much affected by that issue.

JOFFE: Some critics say children's environmental books put too much responsibility on kids to change the habits of adults. But Diane Roback of Publishers Weekly says children's contributions ought to be taken seriously.

ROBACK: Keep in mind that an 8-year-old reading a book about being socially and politically aware and how that relates to the environment, in ten years that 8-year-old is voting. So it really doesn't take very long for them as children to become adults and to have some impact.

CHERRY: Children's books aren't just read by children. They're read by every age, they're read by teenagers, by adults, parents read them to the children, teachers read them. Some people just collect them because there's such beautiful art in them these days.

CHERRY: And, according to author Lynne Cherry, that means that children's book writers have a lot of clout right now with publishers. Taking advantage of children's book sales that doubled between 1980 and '85, then doubled again by the end of 1990, Cherry and her colleagues have been lobbying their publishers to use more recycled paper, vegetable-based nontoxic inks and biodegradable packing materials in the production and distribution of children's books. The authors have made some progress, but say it's still not enough. Just as the market for children's books determines their content, Cherry hopes it also will influence the publishing process. She and the children's folksinger Raffi are taking that message to the American Booksellers Association Annual Convention later this month. For Living on Earth, I'm Phyllis Joffe.

(Voice of child reading: "And deep in the gricklegrass, some people say / If you look deep enough, you can still see today / where the Lorax once stood, just as long as it could / before somebody lifted the Lorax wood / What was a Lorax, and why was it there? / And why was it lifted and taken somewhere? / From the far end of time, where the gricklegrass grows / The Old One who still lives here, ask him, he knows." )



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