Happy Earth Day! Earth Day is an annual event that was first celebrated in 1970 and focuses on “promoting clean living and a healthy, sustainable habitat for people and wildlife alike.” This year, I have put together a reading list of 12 books that all make ideal reading for today and any day – because when is it a bad time to celebrate our amazing planet? The books are presented here in approximate reading age order, beginning with picture books and ending with some tough non-fiction for adults.
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Love Our Earth by Jane Cabrera
Love Our Earth by Jane Cabrera is a beautiful picture book “created in consultation with EarthDay.org” that introduces animals, ecosystems, and basic counting in a fun and interactive way. The book begins by introducing Sun and Earth, who are best friends. Every day, Sun beams down upon Earth, who asks what they can see.
Sun then looks around the planet and lists some of the things they see going on. In the mountains, Sun sees a bear, a moose, and fox cubs; in snowy lands, there are polar bears playing, an arctic hare, and a seal poking its head out of the ice; while in the oceans, there is a blue whale, sea horses, and an octopus hiding. Across each double-page spread, readers can search for all the things the sun sees and learn to count some of them, beginning with the two fox cubs and ending with ten blue butterflies in a steamy forest.
At the end of the book, there is a pull-out section that lists four simple but important ways that even the youngest readers can help protect the planet by reducing waste, avoiding water wastage, encouraging insects through planting, and cutting down on using cars for short journeys.
This is a cute book that will be great for encouraging little ones to develop a love for our planet that will hopefully grow into caring for it in every way possible, and the extra features such as searching for animals and counting them make it educational in more ways than one. This will be an excellent addition to your bookshelf and would be great to see in schools and libraries too.
A Hat for Mr. Mountain by Soojin Kwak
Have you ever noticed how mountains often seem to wear a ‘hat’ of clouds? A Hat for Mr. Mountain by Soojin Kwak is a picture book that weaves this fact into a modern-day educational fable.
A young girl named Nara lives in a studio in the forest where she makes hats for all the animals who live there. She is very skilled and all the animals love her hats. One day, she receives a letter from Mr. Mountain who has seen the animals and would like a hat for himself. Nara begins by weaving him a hat made from wool, but the rain shrinks it. She then tries making hats from several other materials but each time, something goes wrong after she is finished. Upset, Nara gives up and closes her studio until her animal friends work together to find a solution and help Nara finally make a perfect hat for Mr. Mountain.
This cute story reminded me of classic fables and fairytales like “The Three Little Pigs” or Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories. A Hat for Mr. Mountain also brings in elements of STEM education by introducing young readers to the properties of the various materials Nara uses to make her hats and invites them to consider which ones would be the most appropriate, making this book ideal to read before spending time exploring the natural world or conducting some simple experiments.
Fatima’s Great Outdoors by Ambreen Tariq, Illustrated by Stevie Lewis
Did you know that only 22% of visitors to America’s national parks are people of color? Fatima’s Great Outdoors by Ambreen Tariq – founder of @BrownPeopleCamping – is a picture book that shows an Indian family taking their first camping trip together that hopes to help improve that figure.
Fatima hasn’t been having a good week. Kids at her school have been bullying her because of her accent and the food she brings from home, and she hasn’t done well on a math test, so she is really looking forward to her family’s first camping trip. But in the woods, she discovers there are new challenges to face such as erecting the tent, lighting the fire, and dealing with the eight-legged monsters sharing their patch. However, Fatima remembers skills she learned from her mother who grew up in India, and working together as a family, they overcome these obstacles to have a great trip.
Author Ambreen Tariq’s mission is “to make sure people know that our public lands belong to each and every one of us, regardless of our race, color, or immigration status” and Fatima’s Great Outdoors leads by example. This bold and bright book lets young readers see a non-white family enjoying their time together in a national park and will hopefully encourage them to ask their parents to try a similar trip themselves. Fatima’s family even find a way to enjoy the traditional American campfire breakfast of bacon, while sticking to their beliefs and not eating pork.
Even as a non-camper, Fatima’s Great Outdoors made me want to load up my car and set off on an adventure myself!
The Gruffalo and Friends Outdoor Activity Book by Little Wild Things
Without wishing to sound like a pearl-clutching Maude Flanders, kids these days don’t get to play outside as much as in previous generations, and that’s a shame for many reasons, not least encouraging them to develop a love for our planet that will hopefully translate into a desire to look after it. The Gruffalo and Friends Outdoor Activity Book offers 24 activities for little ones to do outside that will help encourage them and their grown-ups to step out of doors.
The activities are all based on four of Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler’s most popular books: The Gruffalo, Monkey Puzzle, Room on the Broom, and Charlie Cook’s Favorite Book. There are also two contents pages, one organizing the activities by the book that inspired it, and the other by themes such as “good for a rainy day,” “good for messy play,” “good for doing on a walk,” and “good for letting off steam.” These two content lists combined – with the thick, glossy pages and ring bound spine – make this a really practical book, thoughtfully designed for use during messy, outdoor play.
The activities themselves are a mix of crafts (make binoculars from old toilet rolls or a pull-along snake from an elder branch), imaginative play (can you roar like a dragon or find Gruffalo footprints in your local area), and nature-based ideas (plant an acorn or search for spider webs). The vast majority can be done with little to no cost or with items you are likely to have around anyway such as old toilet rolls, coloring pens, and lengths of string, and most can also be done with minimal outdoor access such as a pot of dirt on a balcony or even at the park, so you won’t need a huge yard to be able to try them out, making this book very accessible for all kids.
If you’re hoping to get outside more in 2021 (and who isn’t after being stuck indoors most of 2020?) then The Gruffalo and Friends Outdoor Activity Book will hopefully give you some great ideas of things to do with your little ones.
Saving American Beach by Heidi Tyline King, Illustrated by Ekua Holmes
On the coast of Florida, just north of Jacksonville, lies American Beach. This stretch of beach was once purchased by Abraham Lincoln Lewis, Florida’s first African American millionaire, for Black families to enjoy freely during the Jim Crow era. It was much beloved by opera star turned environmentalist MaVynee Betsch who spent the latter half of her life campaigning to clean it up and save it from developers. Saving American Beach by Heidi Tyline King is a short, picture book biography of MaVynee Betsch that explores her life from childhood to after her death.
During MaVynee’s childhood, American Beach was a place where her family could relax and enjoy time away from the barriers that separated them from places white people told them they weren’t allowed to go. She grew up to become a world-famous opera star who traveled the world, but she returned home to Florida to care for her sick mother and discovered that the beach had become terribly polluted. Depressed after her mother’s death, MaVynee dedicated herself to cleaning up the beach and campaigned tirelessly and creatively to protect the land, eventually petitioning the president to sign a law that would protect American Beach forever.
This was a powerful and inspiring story that shows how just one person can bring about historic change in their community, simply through passion and hard work. The story of American Beach is of huge historical significance, particularly to African American communities where it is also connected to the emancipation era at the beginning of the 1800s. Its recognition as a historic landmark thanks to campaigners like MaVynee means that its story can be saved for future generations and this book helps to share how that came about for readers of all ages.
The Dancing Trees by Masiana Kelly, Illustrated by Michelle Simpson
Originally published in Inuinnaqtun, an English translation of The Dancing Trees by Masiana Kelly will be published later this year. This beautifully illustrated book is based on an oral legend and begins by introducing us to a boy named Thomas who has little respect for his environment: throwing his garbage on the ground and telling tall tales to his friends about how skilled he is in the wilderness. Eventually, Thomas’s friends grow tired of his bragging and give him a challenge, Thomas must take a backpack and spend one night alone in the forest.
Although he is nervous underneath, Thomas doesn’t want to lose face so he accepts the challenge and heads into the forest. At first, he is confident and even cocky. He ties strings to the trees to mark his path and continues to leave a trail of damage and debris behind him. That night, however, the trees – who had overheard his boasting and witnessed his disrespect – get up and dance around, and so, when Thomas awakens, he cannot find his strings to find his way home. Hungry, lost, and increasingly scared, Thomas begins to learn respect for nature and how it will only be there to provide for us if we take care of it.
This book, written by an indigenous author, shares a traditional oral tale in a new way and shows how these old stories still have much relevance today. Encouraging young people (and many older ones too) to respect our planet is vital if we are going to make the huge changes we need to in the coming years and this story demonstrates in a magical way how nature will fight back if we choose not to.
Activists Assemble: Save Your Planet by Ben Hoare and Jade Orlando
For slightly older kids, Activists Assemble: Save Your Planet by Ben Hoare and Jade Orlando is a great choice because this book covers almost every imaginable topic when it comes to looking after our planet.
Divided into six sections, the book covers everything from the wildlife trade to climate change solutions, farming and fishing to air pollution, saving water to sustainable shopping. Each topic gets a double-page spread that looks at what the issues are, how they came to be, and what steps we can take to improve things. Of course, these are very much overviews – it would be impossible to cover everything to do with even one of these areas if you had the whole book, let alone just two pages – but there’s enough information here to get conversations started and ideas planted.
The book also introduces many green activists from around the globe. There are familiar faces like Greta Thunberg and Sir David Attenborough, but also plenty of ones I didn’t know such as Kabir Kaul from England, Melati and Isabel Wisjean from Indonesia, and Wangari Maathai from Kenya. Each of them gets a short yet inspirational paragraph explaining the important work they have done to help the planet. The final section is given over to quizzes, discussion questions, a glossary, and spaces for young readers to write or illustrate their own ideas for changing the world.
Activists Assemble: Save Our Planet will be a great resource for young people wanting to take their first steps toward helping the planet but who are unsure what they can do, and also for parents looking for something that explains many of the difficult issues around conservation and climate change in an easy to understand way.
Girl Warriors by Rachel Sarah
If any generation is going to save the world, it seems like it might well be Gen Z. Today’s young people are engaged with activism in ways that even us (relatively young) older folks can’t begin to imagine, and Girl Warriors by Rachel Sarah introduces us to 25 of them.
This short but detailed book includes 25 profiles of young women and non-binary individuals from a wide range of countries, cultures, and racial backgrounds. These young people have all done more for the planet already than most of us twice their age – winning awards, setting up non-profits, leading protests, and giving speeches before global leaders. There’s 18-year-old Isha Clarke who won the Diller Teen Tikkun Olam Award for “bringing to light climate injustices that affect low-income communities of color,” 22-year-old Ayisha Siddiqa who co-founded Polluter’s Out – a “global youth movement that calls out the fossil fuel industry,” and 12-year-old Lilly Platt whose Instagram account about plastic waste resulted in her working with Jane Goodall on a “project to reduce plastic pollution.”
However, unlike most of these short biography collections, Girl Warriors is filled with first-hand accounts. Every one of the 25 young activists included here was interviewed directly for the book along with their parents, siblings, friends, and colleagues, giving Girl Warriors a far deeper insight than usual into what it is that has made these young people so determined to speak out on behalf of the planet, and the marginalized groups who are the most affected by climate change.
If ever there was a book to inspire you to stop making excuses, get out there and make a difference, it’s this one.
A Poem for Every Spring Day, Edited by Allie Esiri
There’s something about the season of spring that makes you really appreciate nature. Perhaps it’s the way it seems to fight its way back after the cold desolation of winter; flowers pushing up out of the ground, trees growing new leaves, birds returning from their winter migrations? Whatever it is, spring has inspired poets throughout the generations and A Poem for Every Spring Day collects 184 of them into a volume that will have you wanting to reenact that scene from Pride and Prejudice where Lizzie Bennet strides through the countryside, book in hand, taking in both the season and the words.
While it’s important for us to read up on the issues facing our planet right now such as climate change and plastic waste, it’s also important for us to remember what it is we’re fighting to save and this collection does just that with lyrical imagery that conjures up meadows filled with wildflowers and newborn creatures taking their first cautious steps. You will no doubt recognize some of the poems here such as William Wordsworth’s famous “I wandered lonely as a cloud,” or Emily Browning’s “‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers -,” but there are also dozens of lesser-known entries as well including many by authors of color.
As well as exploring nature through dozens of voices, this book also features poetry that celebrates many springtime events and holidays (in the northern hemisphere at least) including Easter, St. Patrick’s Day, International Women’s Day, and the Hindu festival of Holi. With two poems for each day – one to read in the morning and one to read at night – there is bound to be something to appeal to everyone no matter your age or background. A Poem for Every Spring Day is part of a four-book series (I previously reviewed the autumn volume back in November) and I’m looking forward to picking up the other two volumes soon.
An Atlas of Extinct Countries by Gideon Defoe
Any child could tell you that planet Earth is divided up into countries, but a much trickier question would be, what exactly is a country anyway? An Atlas of Extinct Countries by Gideon Defoe (he of The Scientists in an Adventure with Pirates) explores 48 countries that no longer exist for various reasons, all of which are ridiculous when you come to think of it.
The book is divided into four sections, beginning with Chancers and Crackpots. These countries were mostly founded by bored, rich white men who had apparently decided they didn’t have enough power and privilege as it was and needed to found their own nations to rule in order to cement a little extra prestige for their names. Naturally, they all soon discovered that founding a nation isn’t quite as simple as designing a nice flag and declaring yourself in charge.
The Mistakes and Micronations section includes one of the stories that most highlighted why the very concept of countries is so bonkers in the first place with the tale of the Ottawa Civic Hospital Maternity Ward that had to briefly be legally declared a separate country from the rest of Canada. Meanwhile, the Lies and Lost Kingdoms section includes all manner of oddities such as the Republic of Goust, a nation of fewer than 100 people which possibly never existed in the first place but was so inaccessible that its residents disposed of their dead by sending them down an icy chute built into the side of the mountain that the Republic sat atop.
The final section is for Puppets and Political Footballs, while still ridiculous in nature, some of the countries included here have darker histories than many others and frequently came to be through deep-seated racism, such as Bophuthatswana which was created to allow South Africa to benefit from the labor of Black people without having to provide for them in any way or the Congo Free State which was eventually exposed to be “a slave state on an industrial scale” – so bad in fact that it caused a public outcry at a time when, as the author notes, “nowhere was particularly enlightened.”
Despite these occasional dark elements, An Atlas of Extinct Countries is mostly a lighthearted book filled with sarcasm and genuinely laugh-out-loud moments for those able to look back and acknowledge how ridiculous much of history is.
How to Avoid a Climate Disaster by Bill Gates
By far the most serious tome on this list, How to Avoid a Climate Disaster by Bill Gates takes climate change head-on with no prevarication around the big issues that will define the rest of our lives. I listened to the Audible version which was impeccably narrated by Wil Wheaton with an introduction from the author. The book contains many graphs and charts and so, if you choose to purchase the Audible edition, you will also receive a PDF where you can view these (the narrator refers you to the PDF when relevant).
This detailed book begins by briefly introducing the history of climate change: how did we get to this position and how do we know it’s a problem, before diving right into the difficulties of finding solutions. Chapter two is literally titled “This Will Be Hard” so Gates pulls no punches on the subject. He lists the five questions we should ask in every climate conversation (also useful for analyzing news reports on so-called breakthroughs and policy changes), then tackles five major areas in which we need changes and innovations: How We Plug-In, How We Make Things, How We Grow Things, How We Get Around, and How We Keep Cool and Stay Warm. In each area, he looks at the problems, potential ideas, and solutions to the barriers we face. Toward the end, he also tackles the importance of government policies and offers ideas of what we as individuals can do.
That final one raises what could be seen as a flaw with this book: for the most part, it is talking about changes at a far bigger scale than any of us are capable of implementing. International and national level government policy changes, fundamental shifts in the way corporations do business, and dramatic changes to infrastructure. It could leave you feeling disheartened, but somehow it doesn’t. I found myself inspired to learn more and more informed to have opinions I can share with my own representatives. Besides, our individual efforts to recycle, grow our own vegetables or switch to an electric car won’t make a huge difference if our governments continue to refuse to make the big level changes they need to.
Of course, there will be criticism when someone of Bill Gates’ status decides to weigh in on a topic like this. However, Gates has already proved himself to be on-the-ball when it comes to recognizing flaws in our readiness to deal with pressing global issues (watch his TED talk on pandemics from 2015), and having someone in his position speak out might help encourage more folks to start making the big changes we’re going to need everyone to be on board with within the next few years. At least, I hope it will…
A Life on Our Planet: My Witness Statement and a Vision for the Future by David Attenborough
My final book for this year’s Earth Day reading list comes from the now legendary Sir David Attenborough. A Life on Our Planet is a meticulously researched book written with help from Jonnie Hughes and it is divided into three main sections. Again, I listened to the Audible edition of this book which was narrated by the author.
Part one is Attenborough’s “Witness Statement.” At 94 years old, Sir David Attenborough has seen first hand the way our planet has changed over the previous century. Throughout this section, broken down chronologically with chapters representing specific years, he recalls events in his life which today, looking back, he sees as climate change markers he didn’t always recognize at the time. Each chapter also begins with three facts: the global population given in billions, the carbon in the atmosphere given in parts per million, and the percentage of remaining wilderness in that particular year. Through these repeated facts, the reader can see those same changes represented numerically.
Part two – What Lies Ahead – is a short middle section that looks at the world as it is today and what will happen if we continue along the path we are currently on. This is, by far the most depressing and – if I’m being honest – often terrifying part of the book. Here, Attenborough shows us just how bad the situation has become in a myriad of ways. He looks at what could potentially happen in the future, beginning in the 2030s looking forward through the decades to the 2100s. He is blunt yet factual and makes it clear that change must happen with immediate effect if we are to survive.
Part three is the Vision for the Future. This section is broken into chapters that look at specific areas: Rewilding the Seas, Switching to Clean Energy, Rewilding the Land, and Taking Up Less Space. In each area, he shares ideas and plans already in motion around the globe for restoring the balance of nature and encouraging an expansion of biodiversity. In the fishing community of Cabo Pulmo in Mexico, residents agreed to short-term hardships in order to allow depleted fish stocks to regrow and become sustainable, while in parts of the Netherlands a new generation of farmers has experimented with innovative and environmentally friendly techniques with great success. Meanwhile, the Maasai tribe in Kenya – recognizing the damage their increasingly large cattle herds were having on their environment – changed their practices and encouraged the wilderness back into their lands, finding new ways to earn a living.
While both this book and the previous entry in this list agree that humans need to act fast in order to prevent irreparable damage to our planet, they come at this problem with very different approaches. Gates looks to technology, innovation, and man-made ideas – improved batteries and new biofuels – but Attenborough looks more to nature itself for ideas on making the changes we need. Fish farms constructed in clever ways to minimize wastage through layering, a farm in southern England where harmonious animal species are grazed together among woodland to mimic what would occur in the wild, and improving farming yields by using ideas from nature itself that also prevent soils from becoming barren.
A Life on Our Planet is a book that is both heart-wrenching and hopeful. It’s hard to imagine how much destruction we have wrought on our planet in just the last two centuries, but there is hope coming from so many directions that it is hard to reach the end of this book and not be inspired to set it down and immediately start work in whatever small way you can. This is exactly what’s needed if we are to fight climate change – every last one of us working together on big projects and small ones, finding ways to live more sustainably, and making choices that will see benefits in the future, if not today. If this book can inspire even a few percent of its readers to start that work, then I hope it sells in the millions.
For more ideas to help you celebrate Earth Day, check out fellow GeekMom EGM’s Make/Play/Watch/Read post from earlier this week.
GeekMom received copies of these titles for review purposes.