by Fran Silverman
I can remember reading Charlotte’s Web both as a little girl and then as a mother to my children. This iconic book penned by E.B. White masterfully related the concept of the sentient nature of animals.
Who wasn’t horrified to think Wilbur could be sent to slaughter? And who didn’t cry when Charlotte died?
This book and others like A.A. Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh are literary canon on children’s reading lists. To some degree, however, they anthropomorphize animals, attributing exuberance bordering on hyperactivity to Tigger and pessimism to Eeyore, for example.
That’s not necessarily a negative, but it leaves a question on how to address and explain the very real issues facing animals today to children in appropriate ways. The good news is that there are several newly-published books aimed at youngsters that tackle these issues.
Here’s a few we spotted that you may want to add to the reading list for a child in your life.
DON’T LET THEM DISAPPEAR By Chelsea Clinton ($11.04 Hardcover)
The chief aim of this graceful book for young readers aged 4-8 is summed up in Chelsea Clinton’s dedication in which she states that all children “deserve to grow up in a world where no animal is endangered” and her refrain on each page: “Don’t let them disappear.”
At the very beginning of the book, published by Philomel Books, she explains the level of challenges facing wildlife with a key that takes young readers through threat levels ranging from “not vulnerable” to “extinct.” For each of the 12 animals depicted, which include marine mammals, African and Asian wildlife and polar bears, she lists the stage of threat they face and why, and she doesn’t shy away from listing hunting, fishing and habitat destruction as main causes.
Illustrator Gianna Marino sets a lovely tone with playful images depicting the animals in their natural environs with their families and herds around them. Each page starts with a few words about what the animals do at night, and at dawn, a nod toward the children who may also be getting ready for bed when they are viewing the book. She also touches on some key facts about each species, making sure to point to behaviors that make them unique.
Clinton ends the book with a call to action, urging young readers to take the pledge to help make sure animals don’t disappear and delineating ways children can help. While we’d have preferred Clinton not have listed supporting zoos as an option to help these species and instead urged families to help children learn respect for wildlife in myriad other ways (see our article on “Raising kids who respect animals” here) the book raises critical issues and informs the younger generation with urgency about what’s ahead if they don’t take steps to respect wildlife. For that we cheer it.
WAKE UP BABY BEAR By Lynn Plourde ($8.27 Hardcover)
At a time when states are promoting black bear hunts and the local media is reporting bear sightings as leading stories on the evening news as if they were aliens invading our planet, Wake Up Baby Bear presents a delightful counter to the fear mongering.
The book focuses on a baby black bear that is having trouble waking up from his winter hibernation. He’s helped along by friendly woodsy wildlife who try to gently nudge him out of his slumber while his parents go off to look for food after their long winter’s nap.
The beauty of this book, with endearing illustrations by Teri Weidner, is that it depicts bears as they should be cast, as families going about the business of their lives, not as ferocious animals you must hunt and destroy. Even more gratifying, Plourde gently introduces the notion that animals are not food when the baby bear finds a nest of eggs on his belly that he suggests would be a good meal and the robin who laid them counters, “These are my babies, not your breakfast.” Published by DownEast Books, Wake Up Baby Bear is a sequel to Baby Bear’s Not Hibernating. It’s a sweet read for kindergartners that will teach children to embrace the animals around them as part of their community and not view them as a threat.
THE WOOLLY MONKEY MYSTERIES By Sandra Markle ($26.08 Library Binding)
Written by former elementary school teacher Sandra Markle, this book examines the importance of Woolly monkeys in South America. With vivid pictures, readers learn about how the mysterious monkeys in Peru’s Manú National Park aid in the preservation of the Amazon rain forests, including acting as important pollinators.
In showcasing the mysterious monkeys who live high up in the rain forest canopy, Markle also informs young readers about the importance of the research scientists are conducting to save and preserve the Amazon by allowing them to glimpse up close images of scientists in action and read snippets about what they are discovering, thus personalizing their work to engage youngsters.
A few fun facts readers will learn from this book: The monkeys eat dirt; warn each other with differing sounds about specific predators; and help preserve the rain forest by eliminating seeds from fruit they’ve eaten in their waste that then grow into new trees.
The book importantly notes that setting aside some regions of the Amazon as nature preserves isn’t enough to stop its decline and addresses hunting as a threat to Woolly monkeys and deforestation of their habitats as an ongoing challenge.
“Parts of the world just can’t be the same without the animals that live there,’’ she tells readers. Published by Millbrook Press, the book is aimed at readers aged 8-12 and ends with a delightful activity youngsters are sure to enjoy.
BEYOND WORDS: WHAT ELEPHANTS AND WHALES THINK AND FEEL By Carl Safina ($12.32 Hardcover)
Researcher Carl Safina’s book has a simple premise: It’s about the biggest animals on land and sea. But Safina goes much deeper than that by quickly hitting on one of the most important points in studying animals, which is that it’s not about comparing them to humans, it’s about learning who they are as individuals in their realm, from their perspectives.
Safina, a Guggenheim Fellowship recipient, does this well in his 140-page book for middle schoolers. It’s filled with up close observations and anecdotes from scientists, researchers and advocates. Some of the stories are sweet and heart-warming, others are devastatingly sad, as Safina doesn’t soft peddle the horror animals face from human predators. In fact, several of his comments in the book are worth repeating, including this gem:
“Creating problems seems to be one of the things that makes us human…” The book delves into the family and social lives of elephant groups and orca pods and relates how they communicate, care for and protect each member of their social network.
From discussing how elephants have fun by acting silly to the stunning fact that the sons and daughters of killer whales stay with their mothers for life, the book allows readers to come to love these species because of their inherent worth. He also starkly explains the stakes, noting that since Roman times, the elephant population has decreased by 99 percent and that every 15 minutes another is killed. He also bluntly recounts stories of orcas captured and killed for the entertainment trade including SeaWorld’s culpability.
Because he is so stark, adding a section about how a reader could help protect these species would have been a favorable addition, because as he notes: “Ours is the species that best understands the world, yet has the worst relationship with it.”
I’M A SUPERVEGAN By Katie Clark ($14 Hardcover/ $10.95 Paperback)
Speaking of introducing vegan concepts to youngsters, if you find yourself struggling to help a child understand the importance of a plant-forward lifestyle, this book will help. The book grew out of author Katie Clark’s desire to assure her daughters that plant-based meals are a heroic choice in a complicated world. School-age children struggle with trying to be themselves but also fit in with classmates and this book gives them a path to speak up with confidence about their food choices. With illustrations by Sonnaz, this paperback explains how vegans are smart, brave and caring, all the traits of a true super hero. She ends the book with a vegan recipe children will enjoy. The littlest vegans in your life will be charmed by this smart read.