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Read Wild: Award Winning Books About Nature and Why We Need Them

It’s the day after Earth Day, and day 2 of our week focusing on Read Wild, an initiative that we are beginning here at TLT to connect tweens and teens with nature. Today our guest blogger, Sarah Mulhern Gross, shares some of her experiences and inspiration and talks about some award winning books that connect tweens and teen to nature.

About ten years ago I chaperoned a field trip to a local nature center.  My 6th graders were, as expected, excited to be missing a day of school.  When we arrived, though, that changed. “Ew, there’s mud everywhere!” they exclaimed from the steps of the bus.  The short interpretative hike we went on focused on common plants and birds in our area, but my middle schoolers were too uncomfortable (the mud, the wind, the bugs, the creepy birds!)  to pay much attention.  I hoped it was just that group of students, but today I teach high school and I’m amazed at the number of students who don’t spend any time outside and can’t recognize common species in our area.  These experiences inspired me, an English teacher, to get my Master’s degree in teaching biology through Miami University and Project Dragonfly’s AIP program.  During my 2.5 years in the program, I focused on nature-deficit disorder and ways to help combat it in teens.

Packed schedules after school, rigorous homework, and extracurricular activities too often keep kids inside, bound to their computers and cellphones, rarely giving them the time to be outside. According to a 2014 survey, “82% of U.S. parents view spending time in nature as “very important” to their children’s development – second only to reading as a priority. Then there’s the fact that many people assume that “nature”=wilderness.  You don’t need to live in a rural area miles from your nearest neighbor to experience nature!  Plants, animals, weather, and almost everything else we consider “nature” can be found in urban, suburban, and rural areas. The good news is that we can use books to help kids connect with nature both right outside their window and in far away places.

There are so many incredible books published each year that highlight the environment and can inspire readers to take action. I’ve found that there is a belief among many educators that the environment is the bastion of science teachers.  However, if we want to create conservationists in the next generation, we must move environmental literacy out of science class and into the rest of our children’s lives: content area classes including English, the library, and the home.

Luckily, there are two major awards for environmental writing given each year and they each honor books for young people.  This week both awards announced this year’s winners and I’m thrilled to share them here.

The Sigurd F. Olson Nature Writing Award honors the best in nature writing in adult nonfiction and children’s literature. The award has been given since 1991 (full list of winners here). The 2018 award was given to Moth and Wasp, Soil and Ocean: Remembering Chinese Scientist Pu Zhelong’s Work for Sustainable Farming written by Sigrid Schmalzer and illustrated by Melanie Linden. An incredible picture book about using biological controls instead of pesticides, Moth and Wasp, Soil and Ocean can be used with any age group.  It would be great to pair with Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring with older students.

The awards committee also honored the following books:

  • Honorable Mention
    • Back from the Brink: Saving Animals from Extinction, Nancy F. Castaldo (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
    • The Girl Who Drew Butterflies: How Maria Merian’s Art Changed Science, Joyce Sidman (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
  • Notable
    • Ellie’s Strand: Exploring the Edge of the Pacific, M. L. Herring and Judith L. Li (Oregon State University Press)
    • How to be a Good Creature: A Memoir in Thirteen Animals, Sy Montgomery (author) and Rebecca Green (illustrator) (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
  • Recommended
    • Errol’s Garden, Gillian Hibbs. (Children’s Play International)
    • Hush Hush, Forest, Mary Casanova (author) and Nick Wroblewski (woodcuts) (University of Minnesota Press)
    • Nature’s Friend: The Gwen Frostic Story, Lindsey McDivitt (author) and Eileen Ryan Ewen (illustrator) (Sleeping Bear Press)
  • Robert Bateman: The Boy Who Painted Nature, Margriet Ruurs (author) and Robert Bateman (artist) (Orca Book Publishers)
  • Trash Vortex: How Plastic Pollution is Choking the World’s Oceans, Danielle Smith-Llera. (Compass Point Books)

The Green Earth Book Award also announced its winning titles this week.  It is the nation’s first environmental stewardship book award for children’s and young adult books and publishes a long list each year before announcing the winners.  What I love about this award is that it focuses solely on environmental writing for young people.  They award books in five categories: picture book, children’s fiction, young adult fiction, children’s nonfiction, and young adult nonfiction. A list of all winners since 2005 can be found here.

This year’s winners were announced on Earth Day and what a fantastic list it is!

  • Picture book: The Brilliant Deep: Rebuilding the World’s Coral Reefs: The Story of Ken Nedimyer and the Coral Restoration Foundation, by Kate Messner, illustrated by Matthew Forsythe (Chronicle Books)
  • Children’s fiction:  The Flooded Earth, by Mardi McConnochie (Pajama Press)
  • Children’s nonfiction: Trash Revolution: Breaking the Waste Cycle, by Erica Fyvie, illustrated by Bill Slavin (Kids Can Press)
  • Young adult fiction: Dry, by Neal Shusterman and Jarrod Shusterman, illustrated by Jay Shaw (Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers)

Honors and recommended reading can be found here

Today I make sure my high school students get outside as often as possible.  I often collaborate with my biology colleague on field study lessons that combine nature reading and writing with his biology lessons.  We’ve also designed our summer reading around nature; our students all read The Forest Unseen by Dr. David Haskell before the year starts and we use the essays in the book to inspire field studies all year long.  The award-winning books listed here can all be used in similar ways. 

Meet Sarah Mulhern Gross

I am a National Board Certified teacher who teaches ninth-grade and twelfth-grade English at High Technology High School in Lincroft, New Jersey. I am a contributor to the New York Times Learning Network and my writing has appeared in Scientific American, Edutopia, ASCD, and The Washington Post’s Answer Sheet.  In 2017 I completed my Master’s degree in teaching biology with Project Dragonfly at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio with a focus on defeating nature-deficit disorder in adolescents through interdisciplinary work.


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