August 2008

Colleen Mondor

bookslut in training

Eco Children

The environment is a popular topic in the U.S. right now, as it should be, and a lot of books published on it target readers of all ages. I think we all can agree that we need to be more environmentally savvy than previous generations and learn as much as we can about green living. This is a subject that does not have to be boring however -- nor even nonfiction. I’ve come across quite a few books lately, some published for teens and some for adults, that I think stand out and should be considered by any young adult the slightest bit concerned about how they live in the world.

DK is the publisher to watch when it comes to nonfiction for kids and teens and Earth Matters: An Encyclopedia of Ecology is an outstanding title if you’re looking for a global view on environmental matters. Designed with an eye towards eco matters from the very beginning (no wasteful dust jacket, recycled paper, vegetable inks), it has the trademark DK appearance that is heavy on full color photographs, charts, graphs and easy to follow text. The goal here is to break the planet down in regions (polar, desert, tropical forest, etc.) and then let readers catch a glimpse of what life is like for both animals and humans in each area. Major threats are highlighted, groups providing assistance or significant work are listed and most importantly, each section ends with a two-page spread entitled “Making a Difference.” Readers are given the tools, from basics like buying fair trade products and using less paper to more advanced such as lobbying your senators and congressmen (sample letter provided), for becoming involved in effecting positive change. This willingness to empower the readers elevates Earth Matters above the standard eco-encyclopedia and makes it an exceedingly useful title, both for learning and as reference material.

There are a couple of errors in the book, one in a chart on mountain elevations, the other describing the diameter of the sun. I have been assured from the editors that they will be corrected in future editions, but it is always disappointing to find errors in a reference book. The illustrations pull readers in and the content, from a look at the Pacific’s floating garbage patch (see Loree Griffin Burns’s excellent Tracking Trash for more on that topic) to the ecosystem of swamps, is as far ranging as you could hope to find. Quite simply, in 250 pages DK and consulting editor David De Rothschild have managed to give readers a close-up look at environmental threats around the world. It’s a grand achievement and hopefully one they will continue to explore in future, equally eco conscious publications.

For fiction lovers, in Girlwood author Claire Dean has written a story about teenage Polly, whose troubled older sister Bree has gone missing. After her disappearance, Polly’s life spins out of control. Her parents were already split up and now don’t know whether to fight or come back together. Her very earthy-granolay grandmother offers sage advice and then goes to pray to some trees. Those trees, along with the rest of the nearby forest that Polly adores, are about to be plowed under by the local developer whose snotty daughter just happens to live for tormenting Polly at school.

Oh, and she thinks she’s seeing fairies.

Girlwood is partly about families, and what it takes to embrace the ones who love you, and partly about girl power, as Polly and some newfound friends band together to save the forest (and maybe also Bree). There are some subtle fantasy touches: Polly can see colored “auras” around people that hint at their attitude or motivations, she has occasional visions of fairies or fairy-like creatures. Mostly the book seems to be about the forest and what it can give those who respect and appreciate it. Dean goes a little heavy on the “capitalism bad/artsy folk good” a few times, but clearly she is looking to send a message that is more bohemian than yuppie. Do what you love, protect the earth, and it just might save your butt when you’re in serious crisis. Whether or not Bree really did, literally, go hang with the fairies for a while really isn’t the point; the fact that everyone finds out who they want to be by talking to the trees (at least metaphorically) is what matters.

It took me a little while to figure out just what kind of book Girlwood strives to be and honestly, I’m still not sure that I’ve nailed it. I do think it is one of a growing number of titles built around environmental themes. Dean’s quiet approach here is a good one and Polly’s reasons for wanting to save the forest are heartfelt, sincere, and most importantly, deeply personal. She’s not just doing it because it is right, she doing it because she loves that piece of earth. Saving Bree, getting the guy, discovering her own one true self, are all gravy. The forest has always mattered to Polly and her sincerity on that issue truly makes Girlwood shine.

Peter Gould’s Write Naked is another title that is not so easy to pin down. It begins with an unnamed girl sitting down to write a story. From this introduction, teenage Victor’s story quickly takes over and the reader finds out all about his garage sale discovery of a Royal typewriter that he hauls out in the Vermont woods to his uncle’s isolated cabin and commences to write something significant with, although he has no idea what that is. Very quickly boy and girl (Rose Anna) meet and begin a flirtation that hovers on pre-girlfriend/boyfriend status. The one thing they do know is that they both love writing and so they begin writing together, sharing the table in the cabin as Victor records the things he and Rose Anna talk about and Rose Anna writes her eco-fable about the forest.

While there are some family issues to deal with (Rose Anna’s mother has struggled with depression for years), most of that does not figure into the plot. Both teens have some coming-of-age moments as the novel progresses and their slowly developing romance is enjoyable to watch, but it is Rose Anna’s story which becomes of major significance to the plot. Rose Anna writes about animals meeting in the local woods for a summit on the climate crisis, a problem she feels passionately about. As a homeschooler she spends her days rambling through the woods and following animal tracks that she details in her journal. Her passion for the local environment spills over into everything she does, and it forces Victor to focus more on what he cares about and who he wants to be -- which mostly translates into being a decent son and kind older brother while remaining true to his girl and his typewriter. She thinks the world needs to wake up and in a way Victor needs to be awakened as well. Rose Anna proves to be a force of nature that pushes him out of his comfort zone (in more ways than one). Ultimately, Gould seems to be saying that we all need that kind of push every now again and just like Victor, we’ll be much better for it.

Write Naked appeals on several levels -- most definitely as an offbeat romance but also as a story about a couple of sensitive teens making their way in the world. Rose Anna’s fable is charming but it is her reasons for writing it that will have a powerful resonance with readers. She’s not afraid of being her own person and she’s determined to make that person someone who can save the world. In the end, that’s a story all of us could stand to read.

Orion magazine has long been on the forefront of environmental awareness and its collection of writings on “Human Ecology” selected and introduced by Barry Lopez serves as both an excellent introduction to the publication and a near endless jumping off point for future reading. The Future of Nature contains more than thirty essays over a period of more than a decade from authors such as David James Duncan, Wendell Berry, Scott Russell Sanders and Ginger Strand, who contributes an revealing excerpt from Inventing Niagara: Beauty, Power and Lies, her study of the long term control and management of Niagara Falls.

The wide number of subjects covered here makes it a solid choice both for those looking for reference material and the casual reader who is not quite sure what topic yet to pursue. Hope Burwell considers the ongoing tragedy of Chernobyl in “Jeremiad for Belarus,” and Marybeth Holleman is deeply disturbed by the politics of Prince William Sound’s slow recovery in “In the Name of Restoration.” Erik Reece weighs in on the true price of coal mining in Appalachia with “Moving Mountains,” and Judith Nies looks at the impact of strip-mining the largest coal deposit in the U.S., which lies under Indian reservation land in “The Black Mesa Syndrome.” (You will never consider coal to be cheap form of energy again after reading these two articles.) Nies throws the gauntlet early on with this pronouncement:

The West, American myth tells us, was a place where there was real freedom -- where you came with what you could carry and you made a life from it. The government was meddlesome, an intrusion, an invasion into the individual resourcefulness of the Western pioneers. That is the myth. In reality, the government and big business made it happen.

Editor Lopez wisely does not dwell only on environmental catastrophes; he also includes an interesting piece from Laura Paskus on environmentalists and steelworkers uniting together to support clean energy and create more jobs and Mark Dowie writes in “Conservation Refugees” about the troubling development of saving wildlife at the price of the indigenous people who have lived with it. Both articles provide different perspectives on stories that will be familiar to readers in some respects but thought provoking in their original content and conclusions.
For budding teen naturalists in particular, a new hero will likely be found in Robert Michael Pyle who weaves his personal story into the history of his field with “The Rise and Fall of Natural History.” Pyle writes of two hundred years of studying natural history and its steady decline in popularity, something readers of books such as Robert Louv’s No Child in the Woods will already know. As education mavericks decry the development of “nature deficit disorder” (at the same increasing testing standards that just keep kids in the classroom more and more), Pyle takes a far more practical approach: “…nature study at its best happened regularly,” he writes, “often daily, and at every level.” Occasional, infrequent programs to rush children outdoors is not what makes a naturalist, he observes, rather it is quiet, patient time in outdoors over a period of years. If we want to raise a new generation of environmental leaders then letting children and teens experience nature at their own pace should be as important as test scores. The Future of Nature is a good introduction to dozens of environmental issues for them to mentally chew on and a subscription to Orion wouldn’t hurt either.

Claude Arbour immersed himself in an outdoor life which he chronicles in Choosing Wildness: My Life Among the Ospreys. Arbour lived more than twenty years on Lac Villiers in northern Quebec working with all types of birds and animals. A high school dropout, his work in the field made him one of Quebec’s most respected ornithologists with a particular specialty in ospreys. In an effort to stay in close contact with the region he loved so much, Arbour early on collected a group of “sponsors” who paid a small annual fee to support his work and in return received his seasonal reports from the field. Choosing Wildness, translated by Joan Irving, has its origins in those regular reports and in Arbour’s meticulous accounting of what he saw and did as he lived in the wild.

I must caution readers (especially dog lovers) that in the first chapter Arbour explains how he came to so passionately care about animals as a direct result of his own callous youthful behavior to his sled dogs. He tempers the brutality of his actions by explaining this was how everyone viewed dogs -- they were work animals to be disposed of through brief, violent acts when no longer needed. Arbour believed this intellectually but when it came to actually putting down some of his dogs the horror of it changed his life. “I lifted the bleeding dog in my arms,” he writes, “and whispered a promise that, no matter what kind of life I led from then on, I would never again willingly kill an animal.” In the two hundred pages that follow he shows the fulfillment of that promise and the fruits of a life dedicated to protecting and understanding wildlife (and many more domesticated sled dogs as well).

Much of Arbour’s work (which is assisted later by his wife), is about observation. He also builds platforms for the ospreys and cares for numerous injured birds prior to their release back into the wild. He recorded the actions of wolves, beavers and other animals and steadily observed the logging of the surrounding forest. Arbour was no quiet voice from the wilderness however. He was someone who saw how he wanted to live and found a viable way to make that happen. That he became an expert in his chosen field is a testament to how far a person can get through hard work and also a reminder of how important it is for those who seek to defend the wild to actually be out there in it.

Finally, an excellent and unorthodox choice for those intrigued by the collision of science and art is the gorgeous Ichthyo: The Architecture of Fish. This examination of x-rays held by the Smithsonian Institution, which is home to the world’s largest collection of fish specimens, is startling and oddly compelling. Originally the x-rays were to serve as records of the older specimens and a way to study the skeletal structure without dissection. But gradually they began to be viewed as art, separate from their scientific value. Turning the pages in this book reveals what should be commonplace -- all the plates are identified in a visual directory at the end -- but most certainly is not. Seahorses, Butterfly fish, Barracuda, Skates and Moray Eels are all familiar to the most casual student of marine biology (or any visitor to an aquarium), but here in these x-rays the fish reveal everything about themselves in an unfamiliar way.

Ichthyo includes essays from explorer Jean-Michel Cousteau as well as several other experts in the fields of fisheries and ichthyology. While each contribute thoughtful words on why maintaining a vast record of fish is so important it is Cousteau’s essay that speaks most directly to the environmental issues at hand in the world’s oceans and waterways. He sees a species as a “library of information” and his concern for what we are in danger of losing is palatable:

When the last fish of an endangered species dies, the last copy of a book containing that information is lost forever. In a literal sense, the Smithsonian Institution fish collections are a vast library. Even though the fish are preserved, they provide critical references to help us differentiate one species from another and help us understand what we are trying to protect and manage.

Everything is connected, Cousteau explains; everything is necessary to the planet and to those who live here. This record of x-rays shows us, in the most basic way, just what we are at risk of losing. That it is also a beautiful record of the exquisite anatomy of the world’s fish, just makes Ichthyo that much more irresistible -- a book that is a treasure on multiple levels.

Until next month, I can be found at talking about books of all kinds or stop in at where it’s all about titles a whole bunch of us think teenage boys should be reading. Be sure to also look elsewhere in this issue for my review of Alexandra Fuller’s The Legend of Colton H. Bryant, a book about the human price paid for our dependence on oil. It is an excellent title for high school readers and comes most highly recommended.
Cool Read: Author and illustrator Timothy Bradley follows-up his first book, the wonderful Paleo Sharks with another exquisite study of prehistoric creatures: Paleo Bugs: Survival of the Creepiest. These books are exceptional and serve as serious forays into their subjects and should be saluted for both scientific accuracy and accessibility. Budding paleontologists are often left with either an endless array of childish picture books (fun in the beginning but quickly outgrown) or dinosaur encyclopedias that collectively concentrate on the same list of creatures (we know all about Tyrannosaurus Rex, Stegosaurus and Triceratops). Bradley tackles new territory -- and not just with pictures and a few throwaway lines of text. In Paleo Bugs we get Paleozoic Arthropods like Sanctacaris presented with pronunciation, description, size comparison to human scale (silhouetted pictures show the creatures compared to hands or children -- both boys and girls -- so readers can grasp how large or small they truly are) and a sidebar with information about other “relatives” from the era or in modern times. (Sidebars also include other information with titles like “Wings for survival” or “The biggest spider? Nope!”) The pictures, which cross the double-fold, show the animal in its element, either as hunter or prey.

Both of Bradley’s books are fantastic and manage to read as part of the small handful of books in the overwhelmed dinosaur shelves that actually appear like something actual paleontologists would create and reference. These are books to inspire kids to make their own journals about wildlife and to do their own speculating about what animals are related to each other and how they connect with extinct species. Paleo Bugs and Paleo Sharks are investment books -- six-year-olds will want them read aloud and twelve-year-olds will consume them over lunch. If you’re building a prehistoric library then you need Timothy Bradley’s work -- there’s no one else out there writing this way on this subject for kids today.