Monday, October 6, 2008

Nature (Book?) Deficit

I've jumped onto a new bandwagon, the Children and Nature Network. When I was solicited to get on board, I was alarmed by the information I was shown: more and more children staying inside, choosing electronic screens over not only books (our focus here) but over authentic experience of the natural world. It's a mounting crisis with implications for the environment and for children's health, for social networks and political movements, among other things. My role for our local chapter of C &NN will be, not surprisingly, related to books. In the coming weeks and months I will be trying to discover how children's books about nature are helping to combat (or foster!) "nature deficit disorder."
My preliminary commando raid of research (via offers the following food for thought. The bestselling children's book in the category of Environment & Ecology is Dr. Seuss' The Lorax. It comes in at #1,207 of all titles, a respectable ranking indeed (and of course it's not even nonfiction). But the long tail quickly thins with nonfiction books. Many of the books in this long tail have an admonitory tone to their titles, a sort of "turn off the lights before another polar bear dies," sort of tone. Ouch. Are these books inspiring love of the natural world, or an unwelcome feeling of moral burden? The Lorax may be selling well thirty-some years after its publication, but it's not clear that it has inspired families to go outside and romp around in the Lorax's forest.
Coming at this from another angle, we find The Dangerous Book for Boys, which has been going strong since its publication in spring of 2007, and which currently stands at #421 overall, another very respectable showing. Not exactly beside it, at #966 overall, is The Daring Book for Girls. Both of these present outdoor activities, skills and games that used to be the common currency of childhood as nostalgia. A chapter on snowballs? On skipping stones? Is outside now so outlandish that children need instructions for even its most casual use? Does this presentation imply that although outside may have been the playground of long ago, it is too quaint to be taken very seriously now?
Books about nature abound -- books about monarch butterflies and manatees and rain forests and every conceivable topic -- and many of them are amazing, many written by my colleagues here on this blog. But where are the books for children that are sending them outside to collect the bugs and gaze at the clouds and build forts? Are there books that do this? Is it appropriate to ask books to do it at all? Do we not, as nonfiction writers, hope to inspire wonder and excitement over the natural world in our readers? What are we not saying? Why are the children not running outside to play after they read our wonderful books? Why are they not engaging directly with the natural world?
As I said, I am only just beginning this investigation. I welcome your comments and leads.


Linda Zajac said...

As a writer and a parent, I don't think it's the shortcomings of books that are to blame, but more the addictive power of video games. For some reason boys seem to be more attracted to these devices. I also believe organized activities and an excess of homework are partly to blame.

Anonymous said...

Great post, Jennifer!

I think it IS appropriate to ask books to encourage and entice readers to interact with nature. In fact, I am working on a book that asks readers to go outside and explore the world around them ... and to report what they see back to scientists. (This book on citizen science will be published by Henry Holt in 2011.)

While pitching this book, I did the sort of lit/market research you are doing now. I focused on two 'types' of nature books: hot-to science books that give readers ideas for their exploring and profile books that inspire by sharing the lives and work of other naturalists.

Here are a few titles from the former category:

PLANET EARTH SCIENCE FAIR PROJECTS, by Robert Gardner (Enslow, 2005)

BLUE RIBBON SCIENCE PROJECTS, by Glen Vecchione (Sterling, 2005)

BACKYARD SCIENCE, by Shar Levine and Leslie Johnstone (Sterling, 2005)

LADYBUGOLOGY, by Michael Elsohnn Ross (Carolrhoda, 1997)

And a sampling from the latter category:

Books in Houghton Mifflin's "Scientists in the Field" series (Disclaimer: I wrote one of these!)

ACTING FOR NATURE, by Sneed B. Collard III (Heydey Books, 2000)

THE KID WHO NAMED PLUTO, by Marc McCutcheon (Chronicle, 2004)

This is getting long, so I'll share my final thought in a separate post. Thanks for starting such an important conversation.

Loree Burns

Anonymous said...

Another way we authors can encourage our readers is through the digital world. This is most appropriate for older readers, who have more access to web materials, and it may seem counter-intuitive, because it encourages more time at the computer ...

BUT ...

I blog a lot about my research, much of which involves adventuring out-of-doors. I try to link to online resources that will allow readers--kids, parents, and teachers--to participate in similar activites. I also keep a visual record of my major research trips on my website. My thinking is that if I want kids to get outside and explore well, then, I need to be sure they see me doing it, too.

I'd love to hear other thoughts and ideas for encouraging children, young adults, and adults to get outside and connect with the natural world.

Loree Burns

Linda Zajac said...

I'm not arguing that books can't entice the reader to go outside. I'm saying that when I was a kid the only books I had was an old set of encylopedias, some picture books, a book on horses and another book on Indians. I read them over and over. None of that reading material enticed me to go outside, yet I played outside all the time. That's an interesting question - why did I play outside?

Unknown said...

Since my new book, We Dare You! was slated to go after the same (perceived ) market as the Dangerous Book for Boys I did some research into who is buying it. Its success is due to the nostalgia market. Grown men are buying it for themselves! It doesn't resonate with kids.
Also, with respect to getting kids into nature, in a recent interview I did with Israeli scientist Yaakov Garb he told me that education doesn't change behavior. Who you hang out with does. He could predict a kid's attitude toward nature more by knowing what his/her parents or his friends did, than from what he/she read in books.

Melissa Stewart said...

There are lots of books that inspire kids to go outdoors and engage in nature--directly and indirectly. I don't necessarily think amazon's environmental category is the best place to find them.

Some good examples are the titles in my Investigate Science series, which is recommended by NSTA.

Titles such as Animals All Around, Fun withthe Sun, A Parade of Palnts, and Down to Earth pose lots of questions and encourage kids to go outside and look for the answers. The text and photos work together to lead young readers to observe and explore and engage with the natural world. In the process, they come to see the wonders of wild creatures and wild places.

Other authors on this blog, like Sneed Collard and April Pulley Sayre, also make tremendous contributions to this area of children's literature.

Melissa Stewart

Marni said...

I agree that it's hard to compete with the 'easyness' and speed of video games and TV. And you can't always blame the kids. It's a lot harder to send kids outside to explore for hours on end than it was 20 years ago.

I happened upon the book "The Unofficial Official Handbook for Boys" last week and was really impressed by it. Same idea as "Dangerous Book for Boys," and in many ways I think "Unofficial" is even more fun.

We recently purchased "Last Child in the Woods" (the library hold list was about 30 people long for 1 book in the system) and I'm looking forward to reading it.

Mrs. Vaccaro said...

Also, sometimes it is hard to find good nature books. I read David Schwartz's Where in the Wild to many classes in my K-5 elementary school. They loved it and are still asking for it to take out. The local chain bookstore not only didn't stock it but told me that titles like that don't sell. (My local independent bookstore stocked it, but they keep selling out when I go look to buy it for a child birthday present.) Children who get their books from chain bookstores can be deprived of great titles!

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