by Ellen Michaud
Sitting here under the ancient oaks that surround my cottage at the edge of the Sacramento Valley, I watch as a heavy, late-summer sun slowly slides through their branches, and drifts toward the horizon.
The Valley temperature has hovered around 105 degrees all day. But here, under the trees and not far from the Sierra foothills, I am sheltered from much of the heat. I am sheltered because at some time back in the seventies, a group of people valued these trees enough to preserve them and establish a small community that would be dedicated to their survival.
Now, more than 150 wild turkeys still wander beneath their branches looking for seeds and nurturing their young. Possums curl up under my porch, skunks travel assertively along paths that wander everywhere, a deer or bear makes an occasional evening visit, and squirrels stretch out for an afternoon nap over my head on foot-thick tree branches splashed with light.
Among Friends, stewardship of the earth—both the planet and its creatures—is a testimony of our faith. And although we are well-known for our political action on city streets, mountaintops, waterways, and in the halls of legislatures everywhere, it’s a practice that begins in our homes with the way we live, and the way we raise our children.
Here are a few books—some old, some new—that will help us share that testimony with even the youngest Friends among us.
Where’s the Elephant? Written and illustrated by Barroux
How do you explain the effects of creeping urbanization to a 2 year-old? You take wild splashes of colorful trees and plants, hide an elephant among them, then ask the 2 year-year old, “Where’s the Elephant?”
That’s what illustrator/author “Barroux” has done in his book Where’s the Elephant? Prompted by an environmentally-conscious adult willing to share the book, any child who pages through it will hunt carefully among the colors and crowded images until he or she discovers the elephant—and the elephant’s delightful compatriots, a parrot and a snake.
Significantly, the hunt among trees to find the threesome becomes easier and easier—a fact that even the littlest reader will soon notice. Trees are cut down and plants are pulled up as roadways, houses, and buildings are built. The animals keep moving from one place to another trying to get out of the way, but are soon backed up behind the one remaining tree in the area, then temporarily confined to a cage in a zoo.
Eventually a more natural space is found for the three friends—an ending that will satisfy the youngest readers. Older children will not accept the end quite so easily, however, intuitively understanding that something is very wrong in an environment that has no room for the animals who were born into it—and with whom the child readers have established a caring relationship. There will be questions—and the wise parent will be ready to help their child find some answers.
Ages 2 to 7.
You Belong Here By M. H. Clark; illustrated by Isabelle Arsenault
In a world of rapid-fire change, pinging phones, screaming televisions, and often chaotic eating, sleeping and working schedules, our children are too often tossed about like little boats in a turbulent sea—tummies tight, fingers clenched, eyes wide as they are continually required to adapt to varied and demanding, if not assaultive, environments as wild as a hurricane.
Fortunately, Clark and Arsenault have combined their extraordinary talents to create a picture book of gently swinging rhymes and soft sweeps of muted watercolors that offer our youngest Friends a quiet, nurturing space—and, ultimately, a beginning understanding of the importance of place.
The book also offers our young a deep sense of grounding. As Clark writes to each child,
Ages 2 to 6.
The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind: A Memoir By William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer
After a severe drought hit William Kamkwamba’s small village in Malawi, vegetables wouldn’t grow and its residents had little to eat. William went to his village library to look for a solution. There he discovered windmills, then figured out how he could build one out of the scrap metal and old bicycle parts lying around. His windmill brought electricity to his home, and his family was then able to pump the underground water they needed to grow food.
Ages 6 to 8.
The true story of a little bonsai tree that lived with the same family in Hiroshima for more than 300 years—until it was given to the National Arboretum in Washington, DC, as a gesture of friendship between the United States and Japan. A strong introduction to the significance of trees.
Ages 8 to 12.
One Plastic Bag: Isatou Ceesay and the Recycling Women of the Gambia By Miranda Paul
In Njau, Gambia, plastic bags were cheap and easy to use. But when people were finished with them, they simply dropped them wherever they happened to be. Eventually thousands of plastic bags began to smother plants, kill the livestock that thought they were good to eat, create breeding grounds for mosquitos, and pollute the air when people tried to burn them. One woman, Isatou Ceesay, found a way to recycle the bags—and it transformed her community and her world.
Ages 3 and up.
Editor's Note: Reviews for The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, The Peace Tree from Hiroshima, and One Plastic Bag were originally published in Ellen's Review Corner in May 2016.