CHILDREN'S books are going "green."
The surge of interest in recent years in issues relating to ecology and the environment (culminating, at least symbolically, in June's Earth Summit in Rio) has created a demand for juvenile titles that emphasize the importance of protecting and caring for our world, and publishers are moving swiftly to meet that demand.
One publisher, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, has even launched a line of books dedicated to promoting ecological and environmental awareness: Gulliver Green Books.
"Our goal is to make [the series] educational," says Louise Howton, director of HBJ's Children's Books Division. "And hopefully if children are exposed to the idea of environmental awareness from the time they're reading picture books, they'll grow up with some sensitivity to the subject."
From picture books to fiction to hands-on science books, the range of choices is broad and growing broader with each publishing season.
Following is a handful of recent lively and informative children's titles that encourage both environmental awareness and activism. Picture books
In their fictional Prince William (Henry Holt, $14.95, ages 6 to 8), husband-and-wife team Ted and Gloria Rand visit the scene of the infamous Alaskan oil spill. When a young girl, Denny, finds an oil-drenched seal pup by the edge of the sea, she and her mother rush it to the rescue center set up in the town's school gym.
What follows is a fascinating inside look at the Herculean effort mounted by volunteers to clean, care for, and rehabilitate the scores of animal victims of the oil slick. Gloria Rand's compelling story treats the subject with the gravity it deserves. (Especially sensitive readers should be forewarned that the volunteers aren't able to save one deer that has eaten kelp tainted with oil.)
There's a happy ending for Denny's seal pup, Prince William, who is successfully returned to the wild. Ted Rand's expansive and detailed artwork makes this book especially suitable for the read-aloud crowd.
An ant named XYZ encounters a vibrant array of flora and fauna in Kristin Joy Pratt's engaging abecedarian, A Walk in the Rainforest (Dawn Publications, $14.95, ages 4 to 10). A teenager, Pratt wrote and illustrated the book for an independent-study project during her freshman year in high school.
Jewel-toned illustrations accompany an alliterative text ("a jumbo Jaguar just about ready to jump"), and each page includes intriguing nuggets of information about the animals, plants, and insects pictured. It's a commendable debut for a fresh young talent.
Lynne Cherry's visually stirring A River Ran Wild (A Gulliver Green Book/HBJ, $14.95, ages 6 to 10) is an excellent choice for a book to launch Harcourt Brace Jovanovich's new series. Cherry, who most recently wowed readers with "The Great Kapok Tree," traces New England's Nashua River over the course of five centuries in her latest book.
The story begins in the distant past when native peoples hunted and fished along its pristine shores, and then takes readers through the era of early English settlers and on to the industrial revolution and the birth of the mills. These plants would soon devastate the water with pulp, fiber, chemicals, and dyes (at its worst, the river would run by turn red, green, blue, or yellow, depending on the color paper being dyed that day).
At this deplorably low point, Cherry introduces readers to Marion Stoddart, who founded the Nashua River Cleanup Committee (now the Nashua River Watershed Association), and shows how she spearheaded a grass-roots effort to restore the river to its original splendor.
Today, the waterway is once again deserving of its beautiful Algonquin name (Nashua comes from "Nash-a-way," meaning "River with the Pebbled Bottom"). Impeccably designed, the book marries Cherry's clear prose and glowing artwork in a series of two-page spreads.
Scenes of the river unfold on the right-hand page, while on the left-hand page the text is set within an elaborate pictorial time-line border. For older readers
Earthwatch: Earthcycles and Ecosystems (Addison-Wesley, $8.95 paper, ages 7 to 12), by Beth Savan, links topics like water cycles, air pollution, and wetland ecosystems with simple experiments. (Try creating and cleaning up a home oil slick using vegetable oil, paprika, and a bowl of water.)
Helpful hints and fun facts abound. Savan, a professor of environmental studies at the University of Toronto, has done a first-rate job of making this valuable information both accessible and interesting to young readers. Black and white illustrations by Pat Cupples further enliven the text.
More hands-on activities can be found in Projects for a Healthy Planet: Simple Environmental Experiments for Kids (John Wiley & Sons, $9.95 paper, ages 8 to 12), by Shar Levine and Allison Grafton.
Peppered with Terry Chui's sprightly cartoon-like illustrations, the book covers pollution, conservation, and recycling (here, an experiment might be making an earthworm composter), and homemade, environmentally friendly products such as chemical-free flea powder, or a bubble blower and bubble solution.
The step-by-step directions given are easy to follow and require only everyday household items or a few inexpensive extra ingredients (such as glycerin for the bubble solution). A follow-up section to each experiment explains what happened, and what was learned.