The stakes of environmental-science books for kids have risen dramatically as climate change hurtles toward the point of no return. Four new titles, running the gamut from informational to fictional, celebrate the beauty of trees and advocate for their protection and necessity for a functioning planet.
“The boreal forest is young, less than eight thousand years old,” reads the intriguing opening page of L.E. Carmichael and Josée Bisaillon’s new picture book. The Boreal Forest looks at a year in the life of Earth’s largest land-based biome, which forms “a scarf around the neck of the world.” Organized by season, the text highlights notable plant and wildlife facts with sections on everything from forest fires to the digestive details of bears. Carmichael’s decision to integrate discussions of climate change and carbon throughout the text, rather than relegating them to a final page or addendum, is notable. The book also highlights Indigenous knowledge and perspectives. (An author’s note indicates that Carmichael received permission from “Indigenous peoples featured in the book” to share the information.) Bisaillon’s mixed-media watercolour and collage illustrations are calm and enchanting, and her gentle stylization complements the informational goal of the text without sacrificing accuracy or realism for aesthetic impact.
A Forest in the City by Andrea Curtis also has illustrations imbued with artistry and charm, but the presentation of information is less successful. This is a text-heavy, long-form picture book that details the history and challenges of growing trees in an urban environment. The topic is fascinating and there are lots of engaging facts to share (for example, ill-placed lampposts can disrupt a tree’s growth, and trees communicate via what scientists term the “Wood Wide Web”), but they get buried in dense paragraphs without any design treatment or navigation aids like headings, sidebars, or text boxes.
Pierre Pratt is internationally renowned for his vibrant paintings full of colour and expression and uses that style here to convey some of the wonder and appreciation of trees. But these images do not adequately capture more technical aspects of the text, such as the details of a tree’s cross-section or a complex subterranean root system. The result is unbalanced – the book is too lengthy for a read-aloud but not accessible or engaging enough for an independent non-fiction reader.
The science of trees is a vital part of conservation, but Peter Wohlleben (author of the bestselling adult title The Hidden Life of Trees) attempts to tap into human emotion in his picture book, Peter and the Tree Children. Inspired by the author’s real home in a German forest, it’s the story of a talking squirrel named Piet, who relays his loneliness to a man named Peter. To make up for Piet’s lack of a family, the pair set out to find the “tree children,” a family of birch trees. The quest meanders to accommodate the halting insertion of tree facts and descriptions of harmful deforestation methods until Peter and Piet find the tree children and promptly turn around to go home.
The artwork from Kelowna, B.C., illustrator Cale Atkinson infuses the flat narrative with some sparkle and zip. Streams of bold sunshine shafts, criss-crossing shadows, and the vast scale of robust tree trunks suggest a gigantic overhead forest canopy that cannot be seen from the ground. The perspective and scale of the spreads (in addition to Piet’s big, expressive Bambi eyes) will keep readers invested when the plot falters.
Nattiq and the Land of Statues by Toronto author Barbara Landry and Inuit artist Martha Kyak portray trees through the eyes of a travelling seal. In a gathering of Arctic-dwelling creatures, a polar bear asks, “What did you see beyond our land?” (Some suspension of the natural predator/prey relationship is needed for this exchange.) The seal recounts the journey in sparse but poetic and moving language – which seamlessly incorporates 15 Inuktitut words – describing the trees as statues: “They cannot fly. They cannot run or swim.” Kyak’s digitally rendered illustrations possess an airbrushed, filtered realism which aligns well with the otherworldly journey that the seal describes. Spreads depicting the green glow of the northern lights and the smeared whiteout of a blizzard give the natural world centre stage as Nattiq looks on, a small dot in the majesty of it all.
While not an explicit call to action, Nattiq’s awe and respect for the beautiful tree-inhabited world is contagious and a lesson in and of itself.
Reading books that are made from and about trees is an inherently reflective experience – the bar for excellence feels higher when holding the dead subject in one’s hand. Change only happens when people are informed and passionate about a cause, so the only books on the environment worth making for young people must do both.