Nature plays a big role in most children’s books — usually it’s a lush, sunny paradise with talking animals. But few books explore the complexity of the natural world, and the impact humanity has on it.
Today, more than ever, our kids have a huge stake in the environment as they inherit a world with 7+ billion inhabitants and a climate out of whack. The impacts of climate change could be devastating in many major U.S. cities by 2050; that’s in 37 years, when our 5-year-old daughters will be 42 and may have 5-year-olds of their own. As our kids grow up, we want them to love the sunny playground of nature, but also to understand its power and its fragility.
Getting kids outdoors is surely one great way to foster a respect for natural world and help kids feel invested in its wellbeing. Reading good books is another.
Below we’ve listed our top 10 children’s books about nature and the environment, including picture books for the younger set and chapter books for tweens. Each in its own way illuminates not just the beauty of nature, but the complex relationship between humans and the environment. And each inspires young readers to become part of the solution.
There are some great titles we left out when narrowing the trove down to 10, including the many gems in the animals genre, from Little Bear and Charlotte’s Web to The One and Only Ivan. Big thanks to our friend and kid-lit savant Hope Moeller who teaches second grade at Ensworth school in Nashville and shared some of her faves for this list. We consider it a work-in-progress and want to hear your own favorites. Please post your top titles in the comments section.
"The Lorax", Dr. Seuss 1 of 10
Dr. Seuss does the impossible in all his books, but in The Lorax perhaps more than any other. Here, he celebrates the spectacular glory of nature and condemns the spectacular greed of humanity while inspiring kids to "speak for the trees" — all without being preachy, smug, finger-waggy or precious. Plus, this book holds the single best, most hopeful word ever written in children's literature: UNLESS.
"Weslandia" by Paul Fleischman 2 of 10
This adventure story follows Wesley, a boy on summer vacation who decides to grow a garden. He finds that one particular plant, the "swist," can provide food, clothing, shelter, and entertainment to sustain his own micro-civilization. It's a story of self-sufficiency and ingenuity, and shows how nature is the source of human civilization.
"The Story of the Blue Planet," by Andre Snaer Magnason 3 of 10
A chapter book for tweens that tells the story of Brimir and Hulda, best friends on a small planet that resembles Earth in every way but one: It's inhabited only by children who never grow old. One day a devious grown-up lands on the planet and sprinkles the kids with powder that, when activated by the sun, gives them the ability to fly. The children become so greedy for flight they agree to nail the sun to the sky and banish clouds for their 24-hour flying pleasure. This clever parable about climate change (with a happy ending!) is written with a Seusian mix of wit and wonder. (Amanda reviewed it for the New York Times Book Review here.)
"The Gardener," by Sarah Stewart 4 of 10
A quiet, lyrical, and beautifully illustrated story about Lydia Grace, a rural farm girl who moves to Manhattan during the Depression to live with her uncle, a baker. Lydia, who has grown food and flowers all her life, transforms her uncle's dreary, gray cityscape into a potted paradise of blooms, fruits and vegetables in window boxes and on sills and every inch of available rooftop. The Gardener, is a tearjerker that celebrates the power of nature to heal and inspire.
"The Tiny Seed," by Eric Carle 5 of 10
The inimitable Eric Carle captures the miracle of a seed in this classic tale, The Tiny Seed. He describes the incredible challenges smoldering sun, pecking bird, stomping feet that a tiny, tenacious seed must face and overcome to become a flower. It cultivates in kids a respect for how hard and how tirelessly nature must work to succeed.
"Life in the Ocean," by Sylvia Earle 6 of 10
This ode to oceans tells the story of a girl who dedicates her life to "the blue heart of the planet." As a young girl growing up in Florida, Sylvia Earle spends every minute of her free time exploring the Gulf of Mexico in her backyard. As an adult she becomes a world-famous oceanographer and adventurer who swims with the whales and walks the deep ocean floor. One of The Washington Post's Best Kids Books of 2012, Life in the Ocean, is a story about beauty, advocacy, and above all, finding a passionate path in life.
"Living Sunlight: How Plants Bring the Earth to Life," by Molly Bang and Penny Chisholm 7 of 10
With potent, poetic language, Living Sunlight, explains how the sun sustains the planet and grows the food that, in turn, grows us. "My light becomes the energy for all life on Earth," writes Bang. "All living things including You pulse with my light…" There are loads of facts in here (co-author Chisholm is an M.I.T prof and renowned scientist) but the book reads like a song.
"How The World Works: A Hands-On Guide to Our Amazing Planet," by Christian Dorion 8 of 10
How do wind currents move? Why does it rain? What is a carbon footprint? This ingenious book of paper engineering explains and illustrates miracles of geography and science, and explores the impact of human actions on our environment. Not for small kids (they'll rip it apart), but elementary aged kids will spend hours pulling the tabs and reading How the World Works.
"How Groundhog’s Garden Grew," by Lynne Cherry 9 of 10
A parable of self-sufficiency, this gorgeously illustrated book tells the story of Little Groundhog, who gets in trouble for stealing other animals' food and then learns to grow his own. Your kid will learn everything from the lifecycle of a turnip to the virtues of sharing and collaboration. Here, Cherry illuminates the many benefits of working with nature, rather than against it.
"The Great Kapok Tree: A Tale of the Amazon Rain Forest," by Lynne Cherry 10 of 10
Another gem by author-illustrator Lynne Cherry. For this one, she journeyed deep into the rain forests of Brazil to find her inspiration. She tells the story a man who tries to chop down a giant kapok tree, but learns from the creatures he encounters about the importance of trees, which sustain life around them. The takeaway: "All living things depend on one another."