Celebrate Earth Day By Reading Kid Lit Books As An Ecocritic

 

By Marianne Snow Campbell

Earth Day is here again!  It’s a time to honor the natural world that surrounds us, consider how we can take better care of the environment, and take action keep our planet healthy and beautiful. In schools, many teachers and students will join together to read and discuss books with environmentalist lessons – The Lorax, The Great Kapok Tree, a variety of picture books about recycling and picking up litter. Last year, Lila Quintero Weaver shared a beautiful post about books celebrating “Latin@ Heroes of the Planet” and other “Earth Day-friendly books with Latin@ connections.” I love the strong messages that these texts carry and believe that they should play a prominent role in educating children about conservation and ecology.

However, reading literature with overt lessons about the earth isn’t the only method for learning about environmentalism. There’s another, somewhat subtler, approach – ecocriticism. Ecocriticism is a form of literary analysis that investigates how literature depicts nature and, ideally, inspires readers to take action to keep the natural environment healthy. But it’s not just for literature scholars – kids of all ages can be ecocritics, too!

To start an ecocritical analysis, choose a book that depicts nature but isn’t about ecological themes like conservation, recycling, and saving the earth.  For example, I like to use Maya Christina González’s Call Me Tree / Llámame árbol, a poetic, bilingual picture book that celebrates the strength and beauty of trees, as well as humans’ connections with these majestic plants.

Throughout the book, the narrator, a child, embodies nature by pretending to be a tree. They begin as a seed nestled in the earth. Slowly, they sprout from the earth and stretch toward the sky, just like a young sapling. As the child/tree grows, they are joined by other children, who also identify as diverse, strong, leafy forest residents:

“Trees!

More and more trees

Trees and trees

Just like me!

 

¡Árboles!

Más y más árboles

Árboles y árboles

¡Iguales a mí!”

 

To explore a book like Call Me Tree / Llámame árbol with an ecocritical lens, young readers can ponder questions (adapted from Dobie, 2011) that facilitate thinking about nature and readers’ relationship with the earth:

  • How do the author and illustrator depict nature in this text?
  • What is/are the relationship/s between humans and nature in this text?
  • What does this text tell you about nature?
  • Do you agree with this text’s representation of nature?  Why or why not?
  • Does this text make you want to do something to help the environment?  Why or why not? What do you want to do, and how can you accomplish these goals?

Let’s apply those questions to Call Me Tree / Llámame árbol. When I consider these questions in relation to this book, I’m filled with awe and gratitude for the trees that surround me. I love how González depicts trees and humans as equals. In both the text and the illustrations, she presents children and trees as one and the same; people are trees, and trees are people. Nature isn’t a commodity for us to consume. This representation makes me rethink my responsibility for the environment and how I should treat nature as I want to be treated. Trees care for me by cleaning the air, providing shade, and sharing their beauty, so shouldn’t I do more to care for trees? Even though Call Me Tree isn’t about conservation, it certainly makes me want to do my part to respect and sustain the natural world.

Doing ecocriticism can benefit kids in a variety of ways. By analyzing and evaluating representations of nature in texts, they’ll flex their critical thinking muscles. Moreover, ecocriticism’s blending of environmental science and literary studies can help science lovers get more into literature (and vice versa). Also, readers who enjoy expressing themselves creatively can take ecocritical analysis a step further by creating their own nature poetry, art, music, and drama.

 The best news? There are tons of literature by Latinx and Latin American authors that kids can explore with an ecocritical lens. Below are some great books for readers of all ages that feature various types of nature motifs. (Special thanks to Lila Quintero Weaver, Sonia Alejandra Rodriguez, Cindy L. Rodriguez, and Cecilia Cackley for their rich contributions to this list of suggested books!)

 

Picture Books

It’s Our Garden (George Ancona)

Kids get their hands dirty and grow food for their community in this nonfiction tale about a school garden.


Prietita and the Ghost Woman / PRIETITA Y LA LLORONA
(Gloria Anzaldúa, Maya Christina Gonzalez)

Prietita wanders the South Texas woods seeking a medicinal plant for her ailing mother.  What will happen when she meets la Llorona?

 

Domitila y el mar (Nina Basich, Teresa Martínez)

After receiving a postcard from her uncle, who’s vacationing at the beach, Domitila can’t get the sea out of her head. (Text in Spanish.)

Domitila

 

Un pueblo lleno de bestias (Francisco Hinojosa, Manuel Monroy)

A group of overprotected children escape their stifling village and create their own community in the desert. (Text in Spanish.)

 

I Know the River Loves Me / Yo sé que el río me ama (Maya Christina Gonzalez)

Can a child and a river be best friends?  Of course!

 

Talking with Mother Earth / Hablando con Madre Tierra (Jorge Argueta, Lucía Angela Pérez)

In this sumptuous collection of poetry, Argueta explores his childhood connections with the earth.

 

Chavela and the Magic Bubble (Monica Brown, Magaly Morales)

Magical bubble gum takes Chavela back in time to visit a grove of sapodilla trees and the people who harvest their chicle in Playa del Carmen, Mexico.

 

Middle Grades Books

Silver People: VOICES OF THE PANAMA CANAL (Margarita Engle)

This collection of poems about the construction of the Panama Canal is narrated not only by humans, but also by animals and plants.

 

The Dreamer (Pam Muñoz Ryan)

As an adult, Chilean poet Pablo Neruda often incorporated nature into his work.  This account follows the young Neruda (born Ricardo Eliécer Neftalí Reyes Basoalto) and his encounters with the natural world.

 

Esperanza Rising (Pam Muñoz Ryan)

Forced off of their wealthy ranch in Mexico, Esperanza and her mother immigrate to California to work the land.

 

Where the Flame Trees Bloom (Alma Flor Ada)

Natural imagery permeates Alma Flor Ada’s stories of her childhood in Cuba.

 

My Ocean: A Novel of Cuba (Enrique Pérez Díaz)

Struggling to understand why friends and family are leaving Cuba for the United States, Enrique seeks solace and comfort in the ocean.

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Young Adult Books

Under the Mesquite (Guadalupe García McCall)

Wrestling with her mother’s cancer diagnosis and the responsibility of caring for her siblings, Lupita seeks refuge and resilience in the shade of a tree.

 

The Vicious Deep (Zoraida Córdova)

Nature meets fantasy!  Tristan has always loved the water – a love that begins to make sense when he discovers that he’s heir to an underwater kingdom.

 

Out of Darkness (Ashley Hope Pérez)

The East Texas woods are a place of safety for Naomi and Wash as they cope with violence and racism.

 

 

MarianneMarianne Snow Campbell is a doctoral student at The University of Georgia, where she researches nonfiction children’s books about Latin@ and Latin American topics and teaches an undergraduate course on children’s literature. Before graduate school, she taught pre-K and Kindergarten in Texas, her home state. She misses teaching, loves critters, and can also be found on Twitter and Facebook.

 

Latin@ Heroes of the Planet

by Lila Quintero Weaver

Views on Global WarmingFacts to contemplate and amaze: 1. A high percentage of Latin@s are persuaded that a connection exists between global warming and human activity. 2. A majority of Latin@s feel global warming carries an extreme or very serious potential to affect their lives.

According to the findings of a new poll conducted by The New York Times, in conjunction with Stanford University and Resources for the Future, an environmental research group, “Hispanics are more likely than non-Hispanic whites to view global warming as a problem that affects them personally. It also found that they are more likely to support policies, such as taxes and regulations on greenhouse gas pollution, aimed at curbing it.”

Pew Research PollThe article in the New York Times acknowledges that these findings challenge stereotypes about Latin@s, as well as common assumptions that saving the environment is of concern mostly to white liberals.

So where are the books for kids that highlight this vigorous interest among Latin@s in saving the environment? My answer: they’re not easy to find and it sometimes means digging within tables of contents to discover a chapter or two featuring Latin@s.

Here are a handful of kids’ books sure to inspire a new generation of Latin@ planet saviors. Consider adding them to your Earth Day observations (April 22).

HEROES OF THE ENVIRONMENT: TRUE STORIES OF PEOPLE WHO ARE HELPING TO PROTECT OUR PLANET, by Harriet Heroes of the EnvironmentRohmer

This nonfiction book for grades 4 and up celebrates the environmental triumphs achieved by a dozen unsung heroes of all ages located in various parts of the United States and Mexico. I’m giving it star billing because I feel it deserves wider attention. The environmental challenges the activists take on—from urban gardens to saving caribou—are as diverse as the heroes themselves. Of the twelve, three heroes are Latin@, two are Native American, two are African American, one is Asian American and the remaining four are white. Rohmer relates the story of each person’s activism in a short chapter illustrated with photos and art by Julie McLaughlin.

The determination, innovation and enterprising spirit shown by all twelve heroes is truly inspiring. Here is a brief recounting of one of their stories. Erica Fernandez is a young immigrant from Mexico who learns of plans by an Australian company to build a large processing station for liquefied natural gas near her new hometown in California. If the company’s plans go through, a large, potentially lethal gas line would run directly beneath her community. Using Spanish and broken English, Erica sets out to inform neighbors and elected officials about the grave risks. The outcry of the community eventually reaches the ears of the governor, who nixes plans for the gas line.

In addition to the stories already alluded to, you will also find:

  • A Hopi girl installing solar panels on her reservation
  • A teacher turning the protection of wetlands into a classroom project
  • A man designing a unique bio-digestive sewage-treatment system
  • A boy organizing the safe disposal of old electronics
  • A lucha libre warrior fighting to protect coastlines and waterways
  • A woman taking on the coal company responsible for destructive mountaintop removal in her West Virginia location
  • A Bronx resident turning the problem of construction-site trash into a cooperative business
  • A young woman inventing a device for purifying polluted water
  • A Louisiana woman pressuring an oil company to relocate an entire community victimized by toxic disposal

The quieter message of this book is thrilling to me: that anyone can make a difference to the health of our planet—people of all ages, ethnic backgrounds and economic or educational levels.

Parrots PRPARROTS OVER PUERTO RICO, by Susan L. Roth and Cindy Trumbore

This ingeniously illustrated picture book about a parrot species brought to the brink of extinction and the valiant efforts underway to rescue it, has received well-deserved acclaim. The story of Puerto Rico’s iguaca parrots demonstrates the vulnerability of all biological species, especially to the encroachment of human activity. Over the course of centuries, natural enemies preyed on the iguaca’s nests and hurricanes damaged their forest habitats, but it was humans who posed the biggest threat, primarily by trapping the birds and destroying their nesting sites. In 1968, when the iguaca population stood at less than thirty, Puerto Ricans jumped into action to save the birds. Thanks to their efforts, iguaca parrots’ numbers are on the rise again. An afterword provides further details on the Parrot Recovery Program.

SAVING BIRDS: HEROES AROUND THE WORLD, by Peter Salmansohn and Peter W. KressSaving Birds

This book teaches young readers about preservation efforts on behalf of endangered birds in six locations around the world. One chapter focuses on a Latin American bird of legend, the quetzal. Like many animals of exceptional beauty, the quetzal has been exploited and poached. Furthermore, its habitat in Central America’s cloud forests is under threat by human activity, including deforestation and fires. Two men employed by a natural reserve in Chiapas, Mexico, called El Triunfo, set out to address the educational gaps surrounding the quetzal. Using puppet shows and books, they have recruited the support of children in villages throughout the region, teaching them to prize the quetzal and its forest home.

LUZ MAKES A SPLASH, by Claudia Dávila

Luz Makes a SplashHow can young readers learn about something as abstract as water conservation? This graphic novel for elementary grades introduces wise water-usage in a kid-friendly package. It’s part of a two-book series called The Future According to Luz. The companion book is entitled Luz Sees the Light. Luz Makes a Splash is built around an eponymous character and a community of friends and family whose lives are affected in multiple ways by scorching temperatures and drought conditions. Gardens are drying up. So is a city park and Luz’s favorite spring-fed pond. It turns out that a nearby soft-drink company is tapping groundwater to manufacture its cola products, and this contributes to the pond’s receding water level. A group of citizens mobilizes to address the problem. Meanwhile, Luz learns about rain barrels and a natural system for filtering household water used for cooking and washing (gray water). One of the story’s characters converts his sod lawn into a rock garden built around indigenous plants capable of thriving in drought conditions.

The author-illustrator of Luz Makes a Splash is Chilean-Canadian. She has made her energetic, intelligent and community-minded main character a Latina. Ethnic identity doesn’t figure into the story, but what a nice way to counteract stereotypes of Latin@s.

This is a book with a message. Some readers will find fault with its didactic approach and the fact that the characters are not given a broader story, but taken as a teaching tool, it delivers solid information that can be used to launch explorations into drought, government-enforced water restrictions, and smart solutions for reducing water waste and keeping gardens green during low-water conditions.

*****

The focus of this post is Latin@ activism for earth-friendly causes, but a growing number of works on the Latin@ kid lit bookshelf celebrate the planet.

final Silver People cover-1Margarita Engle can be counted on to inject nature, naturalists, biodiversity, and environmental conservation in nearly all her books and has received recognition for her stand on these issues. Recently, Green Earth Book Awards shortlisted Silver People for its 2015 honors. Congratulations, Margarita!

 

 

 

 

 

Two of Margarita’s 2015 releases embrace the wonders of nature.

Orangutanka   Sky Painter

For more Earth Day-friendly books with Latin@ connections, check out these additional selections:

Animals Iguazy   River Loves Me      My Brother Needs a Boa   desert-is-my-mother

Need classroom resources related to the field of environmental activism?

Click here for information on The Américas Latino Eco Festival. Don’t overlook Mujeres de la Tierra, an inspiring group of activists located in California. 

Read about the amazing Xiuhtezcatl Martínez, a 14-year old champion of the planet!

For additional insights on the environmental heroes and projects featured in this post, check out these resources:

Omar Freilla is a New Yorker who appears in Heroes of the Environment. Here’s an article about his work.

Erica Fernanadez is another of the true-life characters in Heroes of the Environment. Here’s a video about her campaign for a cleaner environment:

As a follow up on Saving Birds, don’t miss this spectacular video of quetzals caring for their young.

And for young children, don’t forget Dora the Explorer’s cousin Diego, a passionate advocate for the environment!