Our kids’ nonfiction should reflect truth without limits

Lately I’ve been reading a lot of  nonfiction for kids. It’s incredible how varied and vast the field is. There is history, biography, and science. There is social science, politics, and self help. There are books about holidays, books about presidents, books about religion. There are cook books, math books, astronomy books.

In this vast field, when a book keeps you thinking long after you’ve closed the covers, it’s a keeper.

As I’ve been preparing for my  upcoming class in writing nonfiction for kids, I’ve read, or reread, a lot of keepers. Some I’ve loved since they were published years ago (Leda Schubert’s Ballet of the Elephants, for one, Don Brown’s Across a Dark and Wild Sea for another), others are new, or new to me.

Two particularly splendid titles concern a subject I’ve been thinking a lot about lately, myself: the environment, specifically the interconnectedness of life.

Nicola Davies’ Many: The Diversity of Life on Earth, illustrated by Emily Sutton, is one of them.

The other is Creekfinding: A True Story, by Jacqueline Briggs Martin and illustrated by Claudia McGehee.

Each of these glorious titles is richly illustrated. Each has simple text augmented by notes about the science of diversity–how it works and why it matters.

They are books that give a reader hope in times when hope can be hard to find.

As we’ve seen in the last few weeks, it is young people who will save us. And it is books like these that are going to give them the information and the inspiration they need to do it.

I’ve been using Davies’ The Promise in my picture book writing class. I love comparing it to Barbary Cooney’s Miss Rumphius. Both are about making the world a more beautiful place by planting seeds–lupines in Miss Rumphius, acorns in The Promise. But there the similarities end. The Promise shows diversity in the social sense–something Miss Rumphius, a product of its time, does not.  And it’s not just diversity of race and ethnicity, which is so important to show in children’s books, but also of class.

Many explains the importance of ecodiversity. There are a lot of species on the planet. How many? Many! We are still finding them. They are all part of a “big, beautiful, complicated pattern,” Davies writes. She doesn’t pull any punches. She tells us that we human beings are destroying pieces of the pattern. And she reminds us that we are part of the pattern, too. That web of life doesn’t just support other living creatures. It supports us! But she doesn’t tell us it’s hopeless. She doesn’t tell us that the cause is lost.

“Human beings are part of the pattern, too, and we need to make sure it stays big, beautiful and complicated because we could not keep living on Earth if we had to count down instead of up… from MANY to one.”

Briggs Martin’s book Snowflake Bentley won the Caldecott Medal in 1999 for Mary Azarian’s stunning woodcut illustrations. Creekfinding also focuses on the work of one man, and is illustrated in woodcuts. It is the story of a man who, upon learning the farmland he has just bought used to have a creek running through it, decides to uncover it. The book follows him through the process, showing the changes brought by the restored ecosystem–a diverse habitat where plants and animals thrive.

“If you went to the creek with Mike, you’d see the water. But a creek isn’t just water. You’d see brook trout and sculpin. You’d hear the outdoor orchestra–herons, snipe, bluebirds, yellowthroat warblers; frongs returned home; and insects–thousands, and thousands, and thousands of insects. You’d hear the water ripple and burble–maybe a chuckle–maybe a thanks–to mike and the big machines that found the creek.”

When I was a kid, I loved watching nature shows. I would learn about amazing creatures and their habitats. And then, at the end, the narrator would tell me the animals I’d just fallen in love with were about to become extinct. Each time I would be devastated. I felt hopeless and helpless. And that’s got me thinking about limits–or rather removing limits. Giving us limits removes our hope. Anything we do will be defined by and confined within those limits. Only two years before all the whales are dead? Only 10 years for the oceans? What can I do?

When a friend’s doctor told her she had two years to live she said, “I don’t accept that.” Now, several years and a few doctors later, she is living a life without limits. Is she still living because she didn’t accept her doctor’s limits? Maybe not, but the way she has lived is different than it might have been. She hasn’t been living with an end in sight, trying to cram what she can in to the time she has left. She’s been living expansively, experiencing the journey despite her health struggles.

So let’s not tell our kids how long they have before all is lost. Let’s tell them what is possible, not what is impossible. Let’s give them hope. We brought them into this world. We owe them that.

And I think both of these books give them that.



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