What difference can one person make in changing the world? Does it matter how old you are or where you live? The following reviews include biographies of environmentalists who made or are making a difference in the world through their empathy and activism. These books will inspire young readers to take stock of their world and think about what they can do to create a better life for everyone and protect our planet.
Alexander von Humboldt: Explorer, Naturalist & Environmental Pioneer. Danica Novgorodoff. (2022). Crown.
Growing up in Germany, Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859) was a lonely, misunderstood child who loved being outdoors and learning about how all living things are connected. He had many questions and dreams of adventure that had to wait to be answered and experienced until he grew up. As an adult, his dreams come true, and he continued to ask questions while traveling and observing nature around him. Von Humboldt believed that all people are connected through their curiosity about the world and that animals and their habitats—and even volcanos—are connected by unseen communication systems far below the ground. Danica Novgorodoff’s poetic language paints a vivid picture of the places, people, and animals that Alexander observed. The repetition of the phrases “he had so many questions” and “now I see” link the stories of his various travels and discoveries. She works in watercolor and pencil to beautifully depict the explorations of von Humboldt, who appears alone in most of the cartoon-style illustrations clad in a bright red tailcoat that billows behind him as he hurries from one adventure to another. In the end, Alexander realizes that he, too, is connected to the world and is certainly not alone anymore. An author’s note praises Alexander von Humboldt’s work not only as a naturalist but also as a fighter for diversity and equity. He believed and made known that all races are alike in that all human beings belong to the same species. (PreK Up)
Conservation with Jane Goodall (Big Ideas for Little Environmentalists). Maureen McQuerry. Illus. by Robin Rosenthal. (2022). Putnam.
Jane Goodall (b. 1934) has cared about animals, especially chimpanzees, all her life. Jane’s early interests stayed with her into adulthood when she dedicated her career to studying chimpanzees in the wild and educating people about keeping them safe in their natural habitats. (PreK Up)
Ecosystems with Rachel Carson (Big Ideas for Little Environmentalists). Maureen McQuerry. Illus. by Robin Rosenthal. (2022). Putnam.
Rachel Carson (1907-1964), who expressed her curiosity and passion for nature from a young age, devoted her life work to studying and writing books about ecosystems. Silent Spring (1962), her best known book, was an early warning about the harmful effects of pesticides on the planet. Young children will learn about ecosystems and how important it is that we take care of them for future generations. (PreK Up)
Preservation with Aldo Leopold (Big Ideas for Little Environmentalists). Maureen McQuerry. Illus. by Robin Rosenthal. (2022). Putnam.
As a child growing up near the Mississippi River, Aldo Leopold (1887-1948) loved exploring the natural world. He thought that people should leave wilderness areas undeveloped, and as an adult, he became an important figure in wildlife ecology. His idea that people need to have places to go to see what the world was like before human intervention led to preservation areas that we still enjoy today. (PreK Up).
Restoration with Wangari Maathai (Big Ideas for Little Environmentalists). Maureen McQuerry. Illus. by Robin Rosenthal. (2022). Putnam.
Wangari Maathai (1940-2011) lived in Kenya surrounded by mugumo fig trees, but when people began to clear the trees to make way for buildings and other projects, she saw how the absence of trees hurt the land and the people. She dedicated her life to righting the wrongs of deforestation. She encouraged people to join her in planting trees and to begin giving back to the land as much, or more than, they took out. (PreK Up)
These four biographies in the new board book series Big Ideas for Little Environmentalists series are marketed for babies and toddlers, who will be able to handle the pages easily while enjoying the colorful illustrations, but the language suggests that an older audience will be interested, too. Parents and teachers reading the books to young children will need to talk about the meanings of words such as “conservation,” “restoration,” “preservation,” “ecosystems,” “communities,” and “habitat” and explain metaphors such as “When we plant trees, we plant the seeds of peace and seeds of hope.”
Each book begins with the statement “An environmentalist cares for and protects the world around us: the land, water, and air, and the animals and people who live on our planet.” The book’s subject is then introduced, describing how the person was or is an environmentalist. Stylized oil illustrations complement the narrative about their life and big ideas. Each book ends with the question, “What can you do to help nature in your community?” and double-page spreads depicting “little environmentalists” doing things like planting trees and gardens and going on observational hikes.
Greta Thunberg (The First Name series). Tracey Turner. Illus. by Tom Knight. (2022). Abrams.
This middle-grade biography of Greta Thunberg (b. 2003) supports the young Swedish environmental activist’s conviction that it only takes one person, and a young person at that, to bring attention to a problem that threatens all living things. Greta’s environmental activism started with her one-child school strike after she learned about global warming in 2011. For a girl who did not like to bring attention to herself, this was a brave undertaking, but after learning about the atrocities being perpetrated against the natural world by large businesses and governments, she was appalled that no one was doing anything about it. The earth is our home, she thought, so why weren’t people taking care of it? Greta’s courage in speaking out about the climate change crisis has gained her global recognition as a fierce warrior for the environment. The back matter of this informative and inspiring book with black-and-white cartoonlike illustrations includes a timeline, glossary, source notes, bibliography, and index. (Gr 3 Up)
Harriet’s Ruffled Feathers: The Woman Who Saved Millions of Birds. Joy McCullough. Illus. by Romina Galotta. (2022). Atheneum.
Hats with feathers and stuffed birds were all the rage among late 19th century American women with a “passion for fashion,” who went to great lengths to outdo each other with ever more elaborate plumes on top of their heads. When Boston socialite Harriet Lawrence Hemenway (1858-1960) found out that millions of birds were being slaughtered every year for their feathers, she was angry. How could she and her society friends overcome this “great big ostrich of a problem?” While she had to rely on her husband’s considerable wealth and social status, it was Harriet and her friends who eventually saved the day. Joy McCullough’s creative use of wordplay and alliteration is matched by Romina Galotta’s signature watercolor illustrations to bring attention to a formerly frivolous fashion statement that led Hemenway to cofound the Massachusetts Audubon Society. The women’s persistence in getting laws to protect birds codified eventually led to the establishment of the National Audubon Society and the preservation of birds in sanctuaries. The back matter includes resources and ideas on how to be a conservationist (and how to make your own pretend binoculars). (PreK Up)
She Heard the Birds: The Story of Florence Merriam Bailey, Pioneering Nature Activist. Andrea D’Aquino. (2022). Princeton Architectural.
Florence Merriam Bailey (1863-1947) was a contemporary of Harriet Lawrence Hemenway of the ruffled feathers. She, too, hated the use of feathers on ladies’ hats when she saw them on her first trip to a big city. Florence observed birds in their natural habitats and learned to identify them by their calls and song. She wrote books to let other people know about the wonders of birds, including one of the first field guides to birds. It was Florence’s mission to heed the call to protect birds from being killed for fashion and for scientific study. Her idea to use binoculars, cameras, notebooks, and her ears to study birds was taken up by others, leading people to hear Florence’s call as well as that of birds. The story of how Florence Merriam Bailey became the first woman fellow of the American Ornithologists’ Union in 1929 is related in the back matter along with resources for learning more about birdwatching and bird rescue. Andrea D’Aquino’s hand-painted paper collages with oil pastels and pencil provide both realistic and fanciful pictures of birds and their habitats. (PreK Up)
We Have a Dream: Meet 30 Young Indigenous People and People of Color Protecting the Planet. Mya-Rose Craig. Illus. by Sabrena Khadija. 2022. Magic Cat.
Mya-Rose Craig (b. 2002), who is also known as Birdgirl, published a column on birds in her local newspaper at the age of 12. During the COVID-19 lockdown, she interviewed 30 young people from different countries who share a vision for change and believe that world leaders who could take drastic measures to protect people from disease during the pandemic should be able to do the same to protect the planet. On the right-hand pages of We Have a Dream, Sabrena Khadija’s digitally created illustrations, done in bold colors, provide a portrait of each person. The left-hand pages provide profiles of the activists that include several paragraphs of detailed information on their life and contributions; an inset with their year of birth, ethnicity, and a brief statement on their activism; a quote; and a banner highlighting their dream. Their specific dreams address changes in government policies, shaping future sustainability, indigenous visibility and inclusion, an education system focused on the climate crisis, and biodiversity conservation. Resources and ideas for activism are on the back page. (Gr 3 Up)
Sue Corbin teaches literacy and children’s literature courses at Notre Dame College in South Euclid, Ohio. She serves on the International Literacy Association’s Board of Directors as well as on the board of the Children’s Literature and Reading SIG. She also just planted a maple tree in her back yard and takes care of the many kinds of plants and animals who share her land.
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These reviews are submitted by members of the International Literacy Association's Children's Literature and Reading Special Interest Group (CL/R SIG).