Teen Librarian Toolbox
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Read Wild: Crossover Eco-fiction, When There Isn’t Enough YA Lit About Nature

For decades the argument has been made that teenagers need to spend more time outside.  They need time away from glowing screens, ringing phones, and buzzing social media alerts.  At the same time, our schools have added computers in every class, adopted BYOD policies, and cut gym classes and recess in favor of trying to raise test scores.  When I started teaching eleven years ago I realized that many of my high school students do not feel connected to nature.They are overscheduled and overworked, coming home late at night and rising early the next morning to start again.

I’m always thrilled when new YA books have an environmental bent, but it doesn’t happen often enough.  Cli-fi is getting more popular, but there’s also space for books that deal with nature and the environment in other ways.  We tend to see more of these stories for middle grade and young readers, but there’s no reason to exclude the YA audience.  Whither are the books like Barbara Kingsolver’s, but written for a YA audience? Books about nature can inspire students to spend more time outside, to connect with nature in their backyard or school yard. 

While we wait for more great YA books that deal with nature and the environment, why not check out some of the adult books on the topic with crossover appeal? Below I’ve put together a list of some of the adult books my high school students are reading and loving.  Each book deals with nature and/or the environment in some way (and they can help you check off one of the boxes in our #readwild challenge!).

Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens: Kya, or “the Marsh Girl” has been on her own since childhood.  The salt marsh outside her door has raised her.  This is a gorgeous, lush story that transports readers to the coast of North Carolina.  The marsh is almost a character in and of itself, with Kya serving as naturalist and guide for the reader.  A heartbreaking coming-of-age mystery, Where the Crawdads Sing is incredibly popular in my class.  It’s also popping up on AP Lit summer reading lists!

Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver: All of Kingsolver’s novels deal with nature and have crossover appeal, but this one seems to catch on quickly with my teens each year. When Dellarobia Turnbow discovers millions of confused monarch butterflies overwintering in the Appalachian Mountains her world is turned upside down. Scientists, religious leaders, the media: they all have an explanation for what’s happening. Dellarobia isn’t sure if it’s a miracle or a disaster. 

The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah: Kristin Hannah’s books have always been popular with my students, but The Great Alone is my favorite.  Leni and her parents move to Alaska after her father returns from the Vietnam War.  When they arrive and see just how off the grid their new home is it becomes abundantly clear that they are in no way prepared for life in Alaska.  Alaska in the 70s is the romantic place her parents assume it will be; it’s brutal, dangerous, and terrifying.  But it’s also beautiful and awe-inspiring.

American Wolf by Nate Blakeslee: I haven’t been to Yellowstone (yet!), but when I finished this book I was *this* close to booking a trip that day.  Nate Blakeslee chronicles the rise and tragic fall of O-Six, one of Yellowstone’s most famous wolves. While this is a true story, Blakeslee writes it like it’s fiction. It moves quickly and I couldn’t put it down. My students have been enjoying this one.

Parable of the Sower (Earthseed #1) by Octavia E. Butler: It baffles me that Butler’s book aren’t widely taught in high school classes.  Parable of the Sower is the first in the Earthseed series and it’s absolutely terrifying.  Lauren and her family live in safety behind the walls of her community outside LA in 2025.  Climate change has ravaged the US; Lauren and her neighbors are trying to salvage what they can.  When Lauren, a hyper-empath who experiences the pain of those around her, loses her family in a fire she is forced out into the world.  My students typically fall in love with this and quickly move through the series.

The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousness by Sy Montgomery: The Soul of an Octopus is on the (very long) list of suggested summer reading choices for my incoming freshmen.  It’s always the most popular choice.  A warning, though: this book will make you want to have a pet octopus.  Montgomery’s experiences with specific octopuses will surprise you.  While we readily accept the intelligence of primates, dogs, and dolphins, the octopus has never really been popular with the general public.  Montgomery’s book, a brilliant nature study, will change that for readers.

Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants by Robin Wall Kimmerer: I teach at a STEM-focused high school and I’ve been recommending this to all of my students and colleagues.  For teens interested in biology, especially botany, this is a must-read.  Robin Wall Kimmerer is a scientist and a citizen of the Potawatomi Nation.  As a result, she brings these two lenses to her study of plants.  The book is almost a collection of poetic essays and it will inspire readers to stop and take a much closer look at the plants in their own yard.

The Tusk That Did the Damage by Tania James: A few years ago my colleague and I added this to our senior English curriculum as part of our man vs. nature unit. This is a powerful story about elephant poaching in southern India. Told from the elephant’s point of view, the poacher’s, and a Western filmmaker’s, it presses the reader to consider multiple perspectives.  There are no easy answers in this book, no truly good or truly evil characters.  Too often poaching is presented as something done by evil people; James shows that it’s much more complicated than that.

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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Read Wild: Cli-fi, How Books Can Start Conversations and Inspire Action

According to a recent NPR/Ipsos poll, more than 80% of parents want climate change taught in schools.  And that statistic is pretty solid regardless of political affiliation, with 66% of Republicans and 90% of Democrats agreeing that climate change should be taught. Sounds great, right?  The problem is that the same poll also revealed that while teachers are very supportive of teaching climate change, more than half of those surveyed are not teaching it and almost 2/3rds said that’s because it’s outside of their subject area. 

What’s the answer to this conundrum?  Stories, of course! In 2015, Ed Maibach, director of George Mason’s Center for Climate Change Communication, said at a White House meeting on climate change that “Numbers numb, stories sell. We don’t deal well with numbers — it tends to suspend our sense of emotion — but we respond very, very well to stories.”

Cli-fi, or climate fiction, has been around for ages, though the term entered popular use in the 21st century.  It’s defined as a fictional story that includes the effects of climate change.  These stories might explore things like natural disasters, global warming, water shortages, natural resource access, fossil fuels, loss of species, or anything else related to our changing planet. Adult fiction is full of cli-fi, including The Overstory, this year’s winner of the Pulitzer Prize.  Luckily, children’s and YA literature are also confronting climate change head-on through cli-fi.  Sharing cli-fi books with teens is a great way to engage students in one of the biggest issues of their (and our) lifetime. 

I’ve been using cli-fi books in one of the literature circle units I run in my 9th grade English class and they always inspire passionate conversations.  In addition, they often inspire students to get involved by writing letters to the editor, joining our school’s Roots & Shoots club, and even in pursuing sustainability majors in college. 

Reading a cli-fi book is one of the #readwild challenges I’m asking readers to engage in this year, so I’ve rounded up a few of my recent favorites below. 

Dry by Neal Shusterman and Jarrod Shusterman: Before reading Dry you need to understand that it is absolutely terrifying. Set in a very near-future, Dry is the story of a group of teens caught in the middle when California’s drought escalates from inconvenient to life and death. Quiet suburbs are suddenly warzones, neighbors are stealing from neighbors, and families have turned against each other. Neal and Jarrod Shusterman have crafted a terrifying story that made me have to stop reading at points.  This is great to pair with news articles about Flint and the drought history in California.

The Marrow Thieves by Cherie Dimaline: Dimaline’s book is set in a near future after the world has been ravaged by climate change.  Climate change has led to people losing the ability to dream, so people are descending into madness.  However, North America’s Indigenous people can still dream.  Unfortunately,  their bone marrow holds the cure for the rest of the world. With terrifying parallels to how Indigenous people were and are treated, The Marrow Thieves has been very popular with my teen readers.  It pairs well with history classes and current events.

The Beast of Cretacea by Todd Strasser: Part Moby Dick and part cli-fi, The Beast of Cretacea is the story of a group ofteens sent to other planets to harvest resources and bring them back to Earth. Earth has been completely ravaged, so Ishmael is one of the teens sent into space.  However, he isn’t just there to enjoy the clean air and cool weather; Ishmael risks his life to help his foster parents escape from the crumbling planet Earth. Pair it with Moby Dick to talk about environmental justice

These are just a few of the YA cli-fi books out there.  Check out this great list Natalie Korsavidis posted on TeenLibrarianToolbox in 2017 for even more ideas. And don’t forget to share your progress on the #readwild reading challenge on social media!

Additional Resource:

Teaching Climate Change to Adolescents: Reading, Writing, and Making a Difference (published by the National Council of Teachers of English) is a fantastic resource for those looking for more ways to talk about climate change outside of science class. 

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.

Read Wild: Hosting a Bob Ross Like Painting Party

Edited to Add: Please note the comment at the end of the post about Bob Ross, trademark and how to officially host a Bob Ross themed party. If you don’t want to pursue an official Bob Ross party, you’ll have to leave his name and likeness out of the picture due to copyright and trademark rights.

Bob Ross is having quite the renaissance in popularity, especially among teens, in part because of Netflix. If you didn’t know, you can watch Bob Ross paint a lot of happy trees on Netflix and many teens find it to be a great way to relieve stress and anxiety. It’s also fun to host a Bob Ross like painting party.

Today’s program is being brought to you by Karen . . . and the Girl Scouts. Thing 2 is a Girl Scout and they also do a lot of programming that would work well in a public or school library setting, especially if you are already doing programming and have a good space for it. I’m putting this under our Read Wild heading because Bob Ross was famous for painting a variety of landscapes, including forest, trees, sunsets, and seaside retreats. If you have the outdoor space available, I recommend taking the painting outside so teens are painting nature while being in nature and breathing in some fresh air. This is a fun and creative way to get teens thinking about and connecting with nature.

Supplies Needed:

  • A painting surface, like a tile mentioned by Cindy earlier today or a canvas
  • A variety of paints (Bob Ross uses oil paints, but you can use acrylics)
  • Paint brushes
  • Paper plates (this will be your palette)
  • Paper towels
  • Water and something to keep it in for cleaning brushes
  • If you need to protect your painting surfaces, you’ll want to get newspaper or tablecloths

Before you start painting, you may want to prime your canvas by giving it a layer of white paint. If you want to speed up the process, you can prep canvases the day before your painting party. If you are using tiles, you don’t need to do any prep work.

Set up is pretty easy, just distribute brushes, paints, paper plates and water containers to each participant. If you are inside and have public performance rights, you can play Bob Ross in the background. The big thing here is to just let teens paint nature scenes and step back and let them be creative and expressive.

You’ll want to give a brief introduction to teens about Bob Ross. If you want to go with video there are several choices on YouTube or you can just read a brief introduction via someplace like Wikipedia (I know, I’m sorry, but it’s a quick resource). You could also print off examples of his work to have around the room or put together a slideshow which you project onto a blank wall or share via your in-house screens.

There are several online write ups of Bob Ross painting parties. It turns out, it’s a pretty popular party theme. You can find a few good ones here, here and here. Bonus points if you find and wear a Bob Ross wig.

When we went to the Girl Scout party, The Teen was just there by default. However, she had such a good time that she went home and painted a few more canvases. It was an obvious hit and I highly recommend it.

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.