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Top 6 new picture books about nature

…that are worth reading for adults too

The cover art of "Ben and the Sea Lion," written and illustrated by Roy Henry Vickers.
5 July 2022
Natasha Vizcarra
5 July 2022
Natasha Vizcarra

There’s no denying that children nowadays are growing up in a dangerous climate, and – as seen through the rise of youth activism and eco-anxiety among young people – they’re deeply internalizing the harsh realities of their futures. This raises another challenge for older generations: in a time when glimmers of hope are often outweighed by difficult truths, how do we engage with our kids, nieces, nephews and grandchildren on this topic in an honest yet optimistic way? Increasingly, children’s literature has been tackling this question for us, and so we’ve rounded up six of the best picture books about nature published within the last year or so that do a great job of explaining climate and environmental challenges to young readers.

These are not didactic and boring. They are compelling and wonder-filled stories that respect a child’s intelligence, often by daring to acknowledge the elephant in the room (as children often do). And, with powerful messages and beautiful illustrations, they’re equally worthy reads – and welcome breaks from normal climate news – for adults too.

Zonia’s Rain Forest book cover
Zonia’s Rain Forest
Written and illustrated by Juana Martinez-Neal
Asháninka translation by Arlynder Sett Gaspar Paulino
Available in Spanish
Published by Candlewick Press
Fiction for ages 4 to 8

Little Zonia, an Indigneous Asháninka, loves her rainforest home in the Amazon region of Peru. Every morning, she says hi to her friends the Blue morpho butterfly, the South American coati and the Amazon river dolphin, to name a few. One day, she sees a part of the rainforest that is troubling – a smoldering clearing that threatens her home and her friends. This picture book is a story of that morning.

Many in the nature, environment and conservation fields have tried to understand, track and help prevent illegal logging and wildfires in the Amazon; keeping the world’s largest rainforest thriving means we have a chance to avoid future temperature increases.

For the Asháninka people, the threats are close to home and have been for long. Though recent research on the state of the Amazon makes the biome a difficult and complex one to understand, Zonia’s Rain Forest distills it to its most heartfelt form for young readers. Little Zonia’s journey is not at all sad, but equal parts hopeful and defiant.

Chasing Bats and Tracking Rats: Urban Ecology, Community Science, and How We Share Our Cities book cover
Chasing Bats and Tracking Rats: Urban Ecology, Community Science, and How We Share Our Cities
Written by Cylita Guy
Illustrated by Cornelia Li
Published by Annick Press
Nonfiction for ages 9 to 12

While Zonia’s animal friends live in their natural habitats, the animals in Chasing Bats and Tracking Rats have somehow adapted to living with humans in the urban jungle. Canadian ecologist Cylita Guy tells the stories of six scientists and their investigations into how urban critters and human city dwellers can better share the space, and what the animals can tell us about how our environment is changing.

The stories are a great introduction into the world of urban ecology, the study of ecosystems that include humans living in cities and urbanizing landscapes. Middle grade and older readers will appreciate the scientists’ zany and creative solutions to data gathering challenges in cities, such as setting up a rat-mobile, retrofitting a vacuum cleaner to gently catch bees, and shimmying down a chimney to catch bats.

More importantly, the book openly shares racial aggressions experienced by U.S. and Canadian scientists of color while collecting data in their own countries. It’s a sobering eye-opener that’s left out by most nature documentary shows. Cornelia Li’s beautiful illustrations draw us into the scientists’ narratives, and Cylita Guy’s unblinking storytelling makes this book compelling and enjoyable to read and share with young readers in your life.

In this illustration from the book, American scientist Chris Schell observes the behavior of captive coyotes at a research station in Utah, U.S. Schell studies the personalities of city coyotes and how humans change the way the animals act in urban environments. Illustration by Cornelia Li
In this illustration from the book, American scientist Chris Schell observes the behavior of captive coyotes at a research station in Utah, U.S. Schell studies the personalities of city coyotes and how humans change the way the animals act in urban environments. Illustration by Cornelia Li
Wombat Underground: A Wildfire Survival Story book cover
Wombat Underground: A Wildfire Survival Story
By Sarah L. Thomson
Illustrated by Charles Santoso
Published by Little, Brown and Company
Fiction for ages 6 to 12 years
The Fire Wombat book cover
The Fire Wombat
By Jackie French
Illustrated by Danny Snell
Published by Angus & Robertson
Fiction for ages 4 to 8 years

The Australian bushfires of 2019 to 2020 were the worst in decades. Temperatures reached 120 degrees Fahrenheit in some places, and a staggering 3 billion animals – mammals, reptiles, birds and frogs – lost their lives or their homes. These numbers are hard enough for us to wrap our own heads around, let alone explain to young ones.

Released this year, Wombat Underground: A Wildfire Survival Story narrates the bushfires from the points of view of Australia’s beloved endemic wildlife. In the bush, wallaby, echidna and skink flee a lightning-sparked and fast-moving wildfire while wombat is safe and snoring in his underground cave. The aboveground animals want to seek refuge in wombat’s tunnel. But would the solitary and territorial chonk let them in?

Sarah L. Thomson’s dramatic storytelling and Charles’ Santoso’s critters’-eye-level illustrations will make you weep with relief when the animals are finally safe and sound. Keep a box of tissues next to you when you read this with your kid. And provide lots of hugs.

It would be a travesty to not include Jackie French’sThe Fire Wombat in this list. French has authored many beloved picture books about the wombats with which she shares land. Published a year earlier than Wombat Underground, French’s The Fire Wombat tells a similar survival story about how a wombat departs from its independent nature to share a journey to safety with other animals in its ancient tunnels.

French goes further by telling how humans got together to send water and food to wombats and other animals who survived the bushfire. In her author’s note, French says wildlife need our help to protect their habitats and that we humans have taken so much from the Earth. Danny Snell’s cartoon-like illustrations makes this book best for younger kids as the style provides a certain buffer from the overwhelming sadness of what wildlife suffered during the bushfires. A portion of the proceeds from The Fire Wombat supports the Wombat Protection Society.

In this before-the-bushfires scene from Wombat Underground: A Wildfire Survival Story, wombat is busy digging his underground cave, while aboveground, wallaby feeds on leaves and echidna listens to the wind. Illustration by Charles Santoso
In this before-the-bushfires scene from Wombat Underground: A Wildfire Survival Story, wombat is busy digging his underground cave, while aboveground, wallaby feeds on leaves and echidna listens to the wind. Illustration by Charles Santoso
Ben the Sea Lion book cover
Ben the Sea Lion
Written and illustrated by Roy Henry Vickers
Published by Harbour Publishing
Nonfiction for ages 9 to 12

Sometimes humans care for orphaned wildlife but need to accept that they must release these animals back into nature in the future. In this true story from the Indigenous village of Kitkatla in the Canadian province of British Columbia, Tsimshian storyteller and artist Roy Henry Vickers shares the story of a sea lion pup that his uncle accidentally caught in his fishing net and then brought home.

The young Roy and his cousin Bussy help nurse the pup back to health. They name him Ben, short for Teeben — the Tsimshian word for sea lion. With the boys’ loving care, Ben eats and grows and gets into all sorts of shenanigans in Kitkatla, including towing the boys in their skiff and showing local dogs who is boss. Will the boys be able to handle setting Ben free in the sea? Will Ben be able to handle not being home with the boys? Vickers’ formline illustrations help tell this heartfelt and bittersweet story of childhood, friendship and letting go.

The Last Garden book cover
The Last Garden
By Rachel Ip
Illustrated by Anneli Bray
Published by Hachette Children’s Group
Fiction for ages 4 to 8 years

Zara tends the last garden left in a fictional war-torn city. She plants her crops and flowers as the war rages on, and the garden remains a bright spot in the city’s life. Other children play in it and help Zara with tasks. One day however, it’s just too dangerous to stay in the city. Too many bombs are falling, and everyone has to leave. Zara locks the gates to her garden and hopes for the best. What would she find if and when she returns?

Author Rachel Ip drew inspiration for this story from events in Syria and war gardens worldwide. The Last Garden is a tender story of hope amidst conflict and migration. Anyone who tends a garden will appreciate illustrator Anneli Bray’s thoughtful depiction of plants growing, thriving and getting a bit wild after the gardener’s absence. What were seedlings early in the story become established plants later on, firmly rooted in the earth and spreading seeds to continue the next generation. To enhance the experience of this book, explore the author’s essay about the real gardens that inspired the story. One particularly amazing story is of Mohamed Ataya who lost his home and some members of his family in the bombings. With food scarce in his community and no land to plant a garden, Ataya grew plants on the rooftop of his home to sell seeds to his community. Ip’s essay and storybook are a testament to how plants and gardens provide wonder, hope and healing in difficult times.


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