Because I’m an environmental journalist as well as the author of four books for children, people often ask me if I write “environmentalist” children’s books. I find it tough to answer. What makes a book “environmentalist?” Must an environmentalist book speak overtly about the dangers of global warming and toxic chemicals?
I’ve never written a book about pollution or deforestation or a planet in peril, and I tend to shy away from books with an overt message. At the same time, my books are infused with my personal values, which are, among other things, environmentalist. The plot of my book The Sea Serpent and Me hinges on the need to return a rapidly-growing sea serpent to his native habitat—the sea. My book Baby Shoes features a mother and child taking a walk through their neighborhood, and was inspired in part by my belief that children flourish when they’re outside getting dirty.
My newest book, Dangerously Ever After, takes place almost entirely in a garden filled with thorny, stinky and poisonous plants. Will it lure children into the garden to grow unusual plants of their own? I hope it will at least make them curious about the bizarre and dangerous flora of the real world and the fun that can be had with dirt, shovel, and a few seeds.
Certainly that makes my books part of a dwindling category. A recent study of Caldecott-winning picture books from 1938 to 2008 found a sharp decline in the depiction of natural environments since the 1960s. “I am concerned that this lack of contact may result in caring less about the natural world,” the study’s lead author said.
I agree. While I think The Lorax by Dr. Seuss is a masterpiece, I worry about defining nature primarily as a place grown-ups have ruined rather than as a source of adventure and delight. Love is a better motivator than fear and I think we will create better environmental citizens by letting our own love of the natural world infuse the stories we tell. To me, the best environmentalist books for kids are ones that cultivate a curiosity about the natural world—and the courage to explore it.
Of course we must be candid with children about our own great failures as stewards of the planet. But let’s also invite them outside, to take walks and get dirty, to swim in the sea and run on the sand, to dig in the soil and explore the darkness of forests and the fragrance of flowers. In a world where terms like “nature deficit disorder” have become commonplace, our very first step as environmentalists and as authors must be to cultivate a love for the outdoors.
Dashka Slater is the award-winning author of four picture books and one novel for grown-ups (The Wishing Box). She is also an environmental journalist whose articles have appeared in Newsweek, Salon, The New York Times Magazine, Mother Jones, More and Sierra, among others. Find out more at www.dashkaslater.com.