Sometimes I get a request from a library customer or a friend that is so inspiring, it sticks with me for days. Our friend Doug, who is finishing up a master's in education sometime in the next decade or so, is working up a model English class for middle schoolers who have been studying ecology. He figured he'd read them The Lorax as a discussion starter, but wondered if I had any other suggestions.
Now, The Lorax is pretty much on the nose for this purpose, but it's long, and sing-songy, and might already be familiar to middle schoolers as an environmental cautionary tale. So I rubbed my hands together and thought.
There's The Curious Garden, by Peter Brown. A little boy wanders up onto the High Line in New York City and starts a garden, which has far-reaching effects on his community, both human and nonhuman. Super illustrations.
Oh and I like On Meadowview Street by Henry Cole. It's a similar story - a little girl creates a meadow habitat in her yard - but in a suburban setting and for an older audience. One could maybe even reproduce Caroline's results using the techniques in this book.
Redwoods by Jason Chin explores another ecosystem and the consequences of damage to it.
This Tree Counts! by Alison Formento is a counting story about planting trees, all the critters who depend on trees, and all the things that trees do. Maybe a little young for Doug's crowd, but I'm so proud of myself for remembering it.
And just because people have used The Great Kapok Tree: A Tale of the Amazon Rain Forest by Lynn Cherry in this context for years and years and years, that doesn't mean it isn't great - and gorgeous to look at, important when you're asking older kids to sit still for a picture book. All of Lynn Cherry's books work for this lesson, in fact.
Maybe a biography of a famous conservationist would not go astray. I'd take almost any opportunity to read Me . . . Jane, Patrick O'Donnell's picture book bio of Jane Goodall, to almost any group of people.
Or The Fantastic Undersea Life of Jacques Cousteau by Dan Yaccarino, possibly paired with the excellent Manfish by Jennifer Berne. We're having manfish for supper tonight, in fact, paired with a dry pinot grigio.
One of the three picture books about environmentalist and social activist Wangari Maathai (above, in a very nice Vlisco wax resist print), who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004 for her work planting trees in Kenya, would be topical and brings that note of authenticity that some older kids seem to require.
For this class, I'd go with Claire Nivola's Planting the Trees of Kenya: The Story of Wangari Maathai for its illustrations and its focus on environmental cause and effect, but Wangari's Trees of Peace: A True Story from Africa by Jeannette Winter or Donna Jo Napoli's Mama Miti: Wangari Maathai and the Trees of Kenya would work, too.
In this week's review of The Strange & Wonderful World of Ants iPad app, I mentioned E. O. Wilson's Trailhead, a short story about ants that appeared in The New Yorker. It's a longer read, but spellbinding.
But if it were me, I'd stretch things a little bit and read 'em Rotten Island by William Steig. Rotten Island is full of monsters and poison and the freedom to be as assy as anyone wants - kind of like how the ANWR might end up if certain factions got their way. Read this gleefully grotesque passage and tell me if that wouldn't keep their attention:
"It went on and on and on and one day it was finally over. Everyone had succeeded in killing everyone else off. The last ugly ogre had given his last gasp and the last serpent breathed its last flame, and the island was a gigantic heap of dead, scaly, thorny, fanged, horned, bug-eyed, barbed, bristling, saw-toothed carcasses, lying in ashes and embers, burning and giving off a dark, horrible smoke. And then there was nothing but hot ashes."
Hot ash! Middle school ahoy!