By Jon Schwedler, The Nature Conservancy
I’m going to admit conservation sacrilege: I never read The Lorax as a kid.
Despite being born the same year as the book (1971), the first time I laid eyes on it was when a girlfriend gave a copy to me for my 28th birthday. By that time my conservation career was already well established, and the book offered was purely tongue-in-cheek.
While I am very thankful The Lorax planted the seed of conservation in the minds of my generation — bearing fruit today in efforts to save Brazil’s Atlantic Forest and restore America’s forests here at home — for me inspiration did not spring from the stump of a truffula tree.
No, instead my personal Lorax came in a different, although equally prickly, form: my grandmother. Born a century ago at the foot of New York’s dark Adirondack Mountains, my grandmother was exactly the kind of formal, no-nonsense type lady you would expect of that generation. It was clear on our yearly visits to her home we were to be seen and not heard — or face the wrath of 88 pounds of baby-powdered fury.
Besides her temper, she also was a bit quirky. She was terrified of bees; she only took baths; and for some reason never explained she referred to me as “Joachim” (no one else called me this).
One day I wandered into her small library room, with stacks of books reaching the ceiling. I discovered many of these books were about birds and started leafing through.
I froze; her tiny shadow menaced while still only filling a quarter of the doorway. She raised a pointed finger, but only to aim past me, out the window to a bird on a feeder.
“That bird is in that book.”
From that point on my grandmother took me under her wing. Anytime a bird landed on her feeder she sent me to the library to find it in her books. Every birthday and Christmas she gifted a wildlife book to me. At her suggestion I read Farley Mowat’s Never Cry Wolf at age 10, and then Peter Matthiessen’s The Snow Leopard the following year. Both are favorites of mine.
Today I have two young boys of my own, one shown in this video, who have two favorite books of their own. Ironically both books have inscriptions written on the inside. The first is The Lorax; that former girlfriend eventually became my wife, and their mother. The second is a huge illustrated volume simply named “Birds,” given to me by my grandmother for Christmas in 1980.
Unfortunately my boys never had a chance to meet their great-grandmother. But I like to think they are getting to know her, and the things she loved, in other ways.
It may seem strange that you can learn to love the outdoors by spending time indoors reading about it. But reading is a way to introduce children to places you can’t take them yet — without having to pack the strollers, snacks, jackets, diaper bags and handwipes!
Here are my family’s top five children’s books about nature for kids under 10.
What books are on your list?
1. Margret and H.A. Rey’s Curious George Goes Camping, by Houghton Mifflin Company, 1999.
My boys love Curious George and they love camping. This is a good start to get them excited about being outside in the first place.
2. Winnie the Pooh: Roo’s Big Nature Day, by K. Emily Hutta, Disney Press, 2010.
Roo is bored inside and making a pain of himself. His mother Kanga suggests he go outside and explore. Roo learns that outside is a fun place to be (to his mother’s relief).
3. The Giving Tree, by Shel Silverstein, HarperCollins Publishers, 1964.
A young boy and tree are friends for life. My boys love this book, even though it seems a bit melancholy to me. But it is a great introduction to the idea that trees provide all sorts of benefits.
4. The Lorax, by Dr. Seuss, Random House, 1971.
Teaches kids we need to be mindful how we use our natural resources, and to do so for the long haul. This book provides an opportunity to practice your funny cartoon voices. My kids also love the Lorax’s bushy mustache for some reason.
5. Birds, Reader’s Digest Association, 1979.
I had to include this particular book, but in general don’t be afraid to share field guides and other more advanced wildlife books — as long as they have pictures. Kids are sponges and don’t necessarily need a narrative to be fascinated. Often the renderings of wildlife in these books are colorful and visually engaging.
Jon Schwedler is communications manager for The Nature Conservancy’s Restoring America’s Forests program. For the past 14 years, Jon has worked on forest conservation efforts in Maryland, Virginia, Montana, New Mexico and California.