If your family is anything like mine, you’ve spent quite a lot more time outside the past year and a half. Not only has it been one of the only options available to us during the pandemic, but it’s also been grounding to step outside into the beauty of nature and feel connected to everyone and everything around us. In that spirit, I’ve got some great books that celebrate nature - some of our family’s absolute favorite books. I hope you’ll all enjoy them as much as we do.
Okay, so I know I might meet some resistance including this first book on the list - Fall just started! - but I absolutely love it, so I hope you’ll hear me out. Ten Ways to Hear Snow follows Lina the morning after a big blizzard. She wakes up excited to go and make warak enab, Lebanese stuffed grape leaves, with Sitti, her grandmother. Sitti has been losing her eyesight and Lina wants to make sure that she’s okay and to tell her about the snowstorm. She bundles up and heads outside. Along the way, she thinks of all the ways her grandmother may sense the snowfall without using her sight. Lina hears shovels scraping, powdery snow falling from a branch, patting sounds from mittens forming snowballs into a snowman, and the magical hush that can only accompany a fresh blanket of snow.
This is such a lovely book. Kenard Pak’s illustrations pair beautifully with Cathy Camper’s story of empathy and true connection.
Louise Erdrich is one of my favorite writers of all time, and this series of middle grade books is just as good as any of Erdrich's books written for adults. My daughter and I spent quite a lot of our summer reading through the five books in this series. The first book, The Birchbark House, is a year in the life of Omakayas, a seven-year old Ojibwe girl living on what we now call Madeline Island. The book starts in 1847 and beautifully tells of the customs and traditions of the Anishinaabe: their construction of a birchbark house in summer, their trip to the ricing camp in the fall, their move to a log cabin in the winter, and with that move, the arrival of smallpox to their tribe. As the series progresses over five books, Omakayas and her family are forced to flee their tribal lands. The last two books in the series tell the story of Chickadee and Makoons, Omakayas’s twin boys, and the family’s move onto the plains.
The books are set around the same time as Little House on the Prairie, and Erdrich wrote them in response to those books and their dubious representation of Indigenous people. My daughter and I have had hard conversations about our role as settlers and the colonization of Indigenous people. It has been upsetting to her to realize that our ancestors were the “chimookoman” (white people) forcing the Ojibwe tribe from their land, but she also recognizes that it’s our job to make sure those same things don’t continue to repeat themselves today. We’ve loved our time with Omakayas and her family. I really cannot recommend these books enough.
Books in the series: The Birchbark House, The Game of Silence, The Porcupine Year, Chickadee, Makoons
For all of you foragers out there, here’s a fun one about mushrooms. The Mushroom Fan Club is written from the perspective of the author, Elise Gravel, who begins the book, “You know what I love? Walking in the woods and looking for mushrooms with my kids. It’s like a treasure hunt that nature organized just for us!” Her illustrations are quirky and exciting; she diagrams parts of the mushroom before she goes into the features of the morel, the chanterelle, and the destroying angel, to name a few. The Mushroom Fan Club is a fun and educational one to share with your family and get them excited about the world around them. And to find some delicious mushrooms.
Books about nature are often underscored by threats of climate change and environmental racism, which can be overwhelming topics to talk about with kids. I mainly feel overwhelmed by the whole conversation and I’m supposedly a grown up. We Are Water Protectors takes on both topics at once, and does so with so much beauty and inspiration that kids feel motivated to fight for their Indigenous neighbors and the land we all share. Carole Lindstrom’s words are simple and effective. As an Anishinaabe/Métis woman, she writes about her culture’s connection to the land and her role as a Water Protector. Paired with Michaela Goade’s incredible illustrations, We Are Water Protectors is not to be missed.
I’m not always a big fan of books without words, but when they work, they are so effective. Hike is one such book. A father and his child head out early in the morning to climb a mountain and plant a tree at the top. They leave the city as it’s waking and head out into the forest, spending the day overcoming fears, admiring beauty, sharing snacks, and spending time together. When they get back home, they put the photo they took of the new tree they planted in the scrapbook of all their adventures. This book is moving in its simplicity, highlighting the fact that sometimes it really is just about choosing to spend the day doing something you love with the people you love.
I’m noticing a trend in all of these picture books about nature: beautiful illustrations. Packs is yet another stunning book. Hannah Salyer depicts different groups of animals in such a unique and powerful way. Her illustrations are paired with facts about herd animals. For example, “We are wildebeest, also known as gnus, and our herd is called an implausibility - often a million strong.” Each animal group is defined and their pack behavior is described, illustrating the importance of togetherness. We’re all united by our need to be with others. Our ability to communicate, create, nourish ourselves and those around us, and protect each other are all dependent on our ability to peacefully coexist. Packs is educational and inspirational in the best way.
It was tough to narrow this list down. Here are a few more great titles about nature to share with the kids in your life: