Pagan Page Turners

Elsie reading

Like most of you, my wife and I are avid readers, and we’re doing our best to instill our daughter with an appreciation of books, poems and most anything else printed on a page (other than magazines with Hannah Montana or equivalent on the cover — that battle is still a few years away). So far, it seems to be working, as she’s always eager to visit the library or bookstore, and our half-hour of bedtime stories has become a nightly ritual that the whole crew looks forward to.

This is good for all of us, for a number of reasons. First, story-time provides mom and/or dad a chance to bond with their daughter in a quiet and intimate, occasionally even meditative, setting. No matter how crazy the day, or how absent (physically or otherwise) the parents have been, all of us can count on some quality family time at the end of the day.

Second, study after study shows that the most important indicator of academic success — more than quality of teachers or income level or anything else — is whether or not children are read to by their parents. To be sure, good grades and strong literacy don’t always translate into a high standard of living — check out “Wheel Well for a Pillow” or a hundred other essays right here on the Mountain Gazette website for example — but they do allow one the ability to indulge slacker/freedom-loving tendencies and make vows of poverty based on a full assessment of life’s possibilities rather than the limited options of television brain or straight-up illiterate ignorance.

Finally, these bookish moments give us a chance to instill our daughter with values that we — Pagan Parents — feel that she will benefit from throughout her life. If that sounds preachy, well, it probably is, as millions of religious-fundamentalist parents around the world saturate their kids with (what I think is) sometimes hateful nonsense for the very same reason, but that’s what loving parents are hard wired to do: Raise their kids to become the best people that they can be, and no two families or cultures are ever going to agree on the details of that monumental task.

That said, most of the books that we read to our daughter have little to do with “values” and everything to do with cuteness, or fun, or knowledge, or maybe just the blessing of being swept away by some good storytelling. To be sure, almost any kid book is going to have some kind of moral in there somewhere, even if it’s something as basic as being sure to brush your teeth or occasionally sending a letter to brighten Grandma’s day, but not many of them pack the kind of POWERFUL PUNCH that teaches kids about the big lessons — life, death, love and connection to Earth — in a beautiful and interesting manner. Such books can be found in New Age or local bookstores in remnant hippy towns, or at the gift shop at ye olde national park, but few of today’s best-selling or award-winning children’s books explore our relationship to natural systems in a meaningful way. A recent study that explored over 8,000 images contained in 70 years worth of award-winning children’s books (the revered Caldecott Medal, to be specific) revealed a marked decline in books that include images of nature. I’m not talking about overtly “green” books that try to instill knowledge about recycling or warn about species extinction either, but books that simply contain depictions of natural settings or even animals, wild or otherwise, within them.

Well, so, big deal? Kids can always get their dose of nature from actually going outside and playing, correct? I think we can all agree that building forts and climbing trees is more important than reading books about nature, but the problem is that kids are actually spending much less time outside than ever before. Overall, they spend more time engaging “electronic media” (primarily video games, the internet and television) than any other activity other than sleeping, and, increasingly, their recreational activities take place in an indoor setting (ballet lessons and gymnastics, for example). When they are outside, they aren’t swimming in the river or catching frogs so much as participating in organized (read: supervised) activities in manicured settings (soccer in the park, ski lessons at the resort).

To be sure, any physical activity is better than none, so I’m not knocking soccer or gymnastics, but the lack of hands-on time exploring actual pockets of nature, coupled with the urbanization of our culture in general (currently 80% of Americans live in an urban setting, compared to 50% in 1920) and a sharp decrease in popular children’s books featuring natural settings impacts more than just individual children. Over time, it leads collective lack of appreciation for the natural world, and a cultural disconnect from the creatures, habitats, ecosystems and natural cycles that keep us alive. Even worse, as society disengages from direct encounters with Ma Nature, our subsequent ignorance of it can spur feelings of fear — fear of the coyotes or mountain lions in the bits of forest at the edge of town (where kids used to build forts), fear of the homeless people who may be lurking in the creekside willows (where kids used to fish), fear of wildfires, or killer bees, or spider bites, or bacteria — all of which boils down to fear of the unknown. This dread isn’t likely to create kids who grow up to become conservation voters, let alone monkey-wrenchers or civil-disobedients, and may in fact do the exact opposite, as people who see nothing but dark omens in the woods or spooky swamps are surely more likely to cheer when they are bulldozed or drained to make way for a tidy tract-home subdivision.

The array of ecological problems facing our world have not been caused by a lack of panoramic landscape paintings in our children’s books, but one way to help stave off complete ecological collapse is to raise children in a manner that nurtures their natural love for all things wild and free, and one way to do so is to expose them to books that plant seeds of Earthly awareness in their impressionable young minds. To this end, I’ve compiled a list of ten books every Pagan Parent would enjoy borrowing from the library or purchasing for their midget eco-warrior’s bookshelf.

Keep in mind that my daughter is not quite five years old, so this particular list reflects parental read-alouds to very young children, although older kids can certainly read them on their own. They are generally chock full of illustrations, many of them quite exceptional in beauty and execution, and none of them should take more than 10 minutes for a read-aloud before bed; we average about four of these sorts of books during our half-hour of bedtime stories.

There’s surely an entirely separate list of books suitable for older kids that we haven’t come across yet, and I hope that other parents or nostalgic adults will fill me in on some worthwhile reads for elementary and middle school kids. Also, this list comes straight off of our own bookshelf or that of our friends or the Taos Public Library, and is not meant to serve as an official list of the best dirtbag/tree hugger children’s books or anything like that; it is simply a reflection of our own reading journey. There are surely hundreds of other good ones I’ve missed, so please feel free to share your own suggestions in the comment section below.

In no particular order:

“The Lorax,” by Dr. Seuss (1971)

The granddaddy of them all, and, fortunately, the one nature book just about every kid in America is familiar with. Dr. Seuss books often depict fantasy worlds rather than the real one (although, if you’ve ever wandered around Joshua Tree on a moonlit night under the influence of, well, never mind …), and the Lorax is no exception, but at the same time, beneath the surreal nature of the flora and fauna, this book is a concise summary of two centuries of ecocide in the name of making a buck, a.k.a. the Industrial Revolution, and a searing critique of the rise of multinational corporations like, say, Monsanto, Boise-Cascade and Exxon-Mobil, all of which have no qualms about devouring entire ecosystems in one fell swoop and leaving behind wrecked landscapes and ghost towns.

You all know the story, but here it is anyway: Old-growth Truffula forests provide habitat for a diverse array of mammals, fish and avian life. A pioneer-like fellow, the Once-ler arrives (Seuss’ version of the fur trapper, miner and mule or sodbuster) in his wagon and chops down a Truffula tree, which he turns into a thneed — a useless product that folks back in civilization decide they simply must  have. Before long, he’s built up a thneed empire that thrives due to mechanical advances that lead to wholesale clear-cutting of the seemingly endless expanse of Truffula trees that support the entire operation. There’s byproducts of course — toxic sludge, smog and habitat loss — but those externalities are borne by the wildlife such as the starving Barbaloots and the choking Swomee-Swans, who, faced with extinction, migrate out of the area, never to be seen again. But that’s all right. It’s a boom! Business must grow! Biggering, biggering, BIGGERING THE MONEY!

Biggering, that is, until the resource is gone and the market collapses, leaving behind a wasteland of stumps and shuttered Truffula smelters and thneeed sweatshops so common in boom-and-bust economies dependent on a single, non-renewable natural resource. Could be mill towns in Oregon. Could be open-pit copper mines in Arizona. Could be the dead dry farming towns on the High Plains. Or drought-stricken ski towns in the year 2040. Or Eastern civilization in general, grinding to a halt … the survivors wandering the Grickle Grass wastelands, wondering what went wrong.

UNLESS. And that’s the kicker. UNLESS. A glimmer of hope. UNLESS we decide to change our ways and heed the Lorax. Quit trashing the planet for 1001 varieties of discount thneeds.  Plant some seeds in the scorched Earth, some seeds of hope. This book hit me like a punch in the gut at age five or so. May it continue to punch kids in the gut for years to come.

“Mother Earth and her Children,” by Sibylle Von Olfers.
Illustrated by Seiglinde Schoen Smith (1906).

If the potential for ecological apocalypse prophesized by the Lorax seems a little heavy right before bed, then follow it up with this little gem — a simple celebration of the seasons. Written in Germany in1906, this poem follows the rounds of the Earth Children who awaken beneath the Earth (the story was originally entitled “Something About Root Children”) toward the end of winter and go straight to work readying things for the spring thaw. They sew flower petals, paint beetles and ladybugs and tidy things up under the watchful eye of Mother Earth (the quintessential old woman sipping tea and doing some needlepoint) before climbing out and into the spring sun … a parade of life emerging from the soil. They hang out with ants and bees, skip among the flowers and have a frolicking good time until autumn comes with a blast of cold wind and forces them to return to the Earth for a long winter’s nap.

A swell story, obviously timeless, but it’s the artwork in this one that really makes the book special, for the illustrations are actually close-up photographs of an elaborate quilt created by a mother grieving over the death of her son. In her sadness, she remembered this tale from her German childhood, and created a quilt that told the story using elaborately embroidered images from the original storybook. The result — the entire quilt is displayed at the end of the book — is an amazingly intricate hand-sewn depiction of the passage of the four seasons.

“First Snow in the Woods,” by Carl Sams and Jean Stoick (2007)

The cover of this books says it’s a “photographic fantasy,” but I only agree with the “photographic” part, as the story itself is a mostly realistic depiction of a young fawn’s experience of his first snowstorm. The story starts in late summer: bird songs, dragonflies, hummingbirds and the like, and moves into autumn and the first frost of the year, as seen through the eyes of the nameless fawn. There are big changes afoot, and all the animals are either leaving or prepping for some event the fawn can’t wrap his head around. Meanwhile, mother doe says nothing and just keeps munching acorns and keeping an eye on the fawn and the weather. One night, the Great Gray Owl swoops into the neighborhood and announces “creatures of the forest prepare! The first winter storm is here.” And so it was, and although our little fawn had been nervous about whatever it was that was coming, it turns out that he was, without knowing it, already preparing for winter (by growing a thick coat and loading up on nuts) and that his ma knew just where to go when the storm got rough.

Entertaining, at least if you have any interest in this sort of thing (and kids automatically do), and informational too, as it reveals the transition from fall to winter quite well, but this story really stands out for three reasons. First, this book consists entirely of photographs, and they are well rendered beauties that capture the essence of this particular place (somewhere in Michigan) perfectly: the northern lights; dew on a dragonfly’s wing; goldenrod glowing in the sunrise light; a family of deer in the snow. Second, that essence of place is shown in a nuanced way that reveals subtle aspects of the season (such as the first frost silencing the dragonflies) as well as lesser-known creatures that don’t always make it into the storybooks, like chickadees and woodchucks. Finally, the fact that the fawn is watching all of this unfold — watching and learning — is a lesson that’s sure to stick with your little Pagan and make him or her look at things a little more closely during your next foray into the woods.

“Sky Tree,” by Thomas Locker (1995)

Edward Abbey once said something to the effect that if you sat out on a slab of rimrock for a year, just sat there and soaked it all up — blistering sun, blizzards, starlight, floods, gentle rains, everything in between — you would become a god. I happen to agree wholeheartedly with that sentiment, which means, by that measure at least, that we’re surrounded by all sorts of living creatures who have undergone that trial hundreds of times in their lives.

I’m talking about trees of course, those berooted and patient watchmen of the forest, the desert, the just about every ecosystem other than sand dunes or the truly tremendous grasslands of the world. It seems like a boring life, just standing there and watching the world unfold, but as this deceptively simple book explains, the life of a tree is quite adventurous. The book consists of 14 paintings of a non-specific deciduous tree growing on a knoll next to a river. Each painting captures an aspect of the four seasons and is accompanied by a sentence or two that tells a quick story about what is happening. It starts with summer — full green glory, then eases into a late summer storm, the changing leaves and the first frost, right on through winter and spring and back to summer. Birds pass through, stars sparkle through the branches. You get the idea.

The cover of the book says “seeing science through art,” and I suppose observing the seasons via the life of a single tree is actually quite scientific, but in reality it’s just that: Reality, and one that kids everywhere used to know without having to read about it in a book. Nevertheless, it is a beautiful book that tells a story that any kid will enjoy.

“The Little House,” by Virginia Lee Burton (1942)

In 1979, the cartoonist R. Crumb created a series of drawings called “A Short History of America,” consisting of 12 panels that began with an idyllic chunk of forest and meadow in Anywhere USA and ended with that same spot after it had been transformed into one of 10 billion possible roadside strips laden with mini-malls, fast food and all the rest. In between were panels showing each step along the way … roads, railroads, powerlines, and the last big tree unceremoniously giving way to a convenience store.

“The Little House” is basically a kids’ version of Crumb’s masterpiece of a cartoon, and is a masterpiece of its own. The book starts with — you guessed it — a little house on a farm way out in the country. The sun and moon pass over again and again. The seasons change. The kids grow up. And the lights of the distant city get a little bit brighter. One day the steam shovels arrive and force an arrow-straight road through the rolling hills and right past the house. Suddenly, there are cars and people rushing by, then houses being built all around as the farm get developed, followed by tenements, railroads, subways, skyscrapers, freeways … and the poor little house is abandoned and surrounded by the industrial age and all its trappings, unable to see the stars or even tell what time of year it is.

Fortunately, there’s a happy ending, as the great-great-granddaughter of the fellow who built the house recognizes it from a photo and decides to purchase it. After all, it’s a well-built house that simply needs a little love and some fresh air. So they halt traffic and haul it out of the nameless city and out into the country once again.

A Hollywood ending perhaps, since we all know that today’s farmland is tomorrow’s exurbs, or just as bad, today’s crystal methville, but kids need to know that there are some places left to escape to. Best of all, the tale is blatantly anti-development, but in an understated way. The house just sits there and watches the nightmare of 20th century industrialization and sprawl unfold (quite visionary actually, since it was written in 1942), never getting depressed or pissed about it all — just confused and a little sad. Meanwhile, readers do get melancholy, perhaps even a bit angry, for we know full well that something about this tale just isn’t right, and we breathe a collective sigh of relief when the house ends up back in the country again.

“Frog and Toad All Year,” by Arnold Lobel (1976)

I picked this one at random because ALL four of the “Frog and Toad” books should be added to your child’s bookshelf immediately. Frog and Toad are two pals who hang out and sometimes have adventures. None of the books takes place completely in nature — they sometimes sit inside and sip tea and tell scary stories or clean up a messy house for example — but in the end they are amphibians, so much of their life unfolds out of doors, and they have plenty of fun. They swim in rivers, plant gardens, go sledding, seek solitude on islands, climb mountains and generally live the kind of life any kid born before 1975 took for granted.

The outdoor adventures are good, but the “Frog and Toad” books use these adventures to teach important lessons in a very nuanced and non-preachy way. Sledding takes courage. Gardening involves patience. Lost buttons on the trail can reveal deeply rooted anger issues. Swimming in a silly bathing suit can cause others to laugh at you … but don’t let the snake/dragonfly/turtle/bird bastards get you down. And always remember that spring really is right around the corner.

“The Giving Tree,” by Shel Silverstein (1964)

You probably all know this short and simple tale, but if you haven’t, then STOP READING THIS RIGHT NOW and go find yourself a copy, as I don’t want to spoil it for you. For the rest of you, here’s a synopsis: A kid grows up in the protective and loving shade of a large apple tree. He climbs it, talks to it and eats its fruit, and the kid and the tree form a special bond not unlike that of a child and parent. As the boy ages, he visits the tree less and less, but the tree is infinitely patient and is always glad to see him, even if he comes with his girlfriend to carve their initials in the tree’s bark. As the boy becomes a man, he rarely visits at all, and one day he arrives and tells the tree he needs to cut her down to use the wood to build a boat. The tree obliges and gives up all but her stump so the boy can sail off. Years later, the boy returns as an old and weary man. The tree is glad to see him but says she has nothing left to offer. The man says he just needs a place to rest, so he sits on the stump, just him and the tree once again.

Like the Lorax, my ma read “The Giving Tree” to me at age five and it hit me in the gut in a similar way. Bam. We harm the Earth and its creatures and take and take and take. Bam. But there is a love that’s bigger than our selfishness and meanness, a love that transcends our pettiness and short sightedness. Bam. The One True Love. The unconditional love of our actual mother AND Mother Earth that gives all and keeps giving, no matter what we do to her, all because she knows that eventually we’ll come around and realize that The Love is the only thing that really matters. If Kahlil Gibran’s “The Prophet” is a concise summary of the best impulses of the world’s religions, than “The Giving Tree” is a perfect distillation of “The Prophet.” Read it and weep.

“Two Little Gardeners,” by Margaret Wise Brown.
Illustrated by Gertrude Elliot (1951)

Remember the “Little Golden Books” and the tell-tale golden shimmer along their spines? Well, back before Barbie and the Disney Princesses foisted themselves upon the publisher, these books were reliably good tales featuring a variety of characters exploring various aspects of 1940s and 1950s America. Pokey Little Puppies breaking out of the yard to see what they can see. Toy tugboats sailing down mighty rivers to the sea. Little Red Cabooses saving the train. Little Postmen delivering cards to grandma. If these books were a little bit white bread (and white skinned), well, they were more a sign of the times than anything, and while the stories may not be multicultural, they are worthwhile, and millions of Americans hold these tales and their images close to their hearts.

Although I didn’t own it as a kid, one of my favorite Little Golden Books these days is “Two Little Gardeners.” Nothing fancy: Spring arrives and a boy and girl haul their tools out of the shed and plant a garden. From there, the book just tells the story of the garden. Roots fattening up beneath the soil. Squash flowers blooming. Worms turning the soil. They weed it, water it, chase away the bunnies and eventually harvest it. They have a big feast and then can the rest, or store it in the root cellar. In the end, they sit in rocking chairs by the fire and sing a song about gardening. Who could ask for more?

“On the Day You Were Born,” by Debra Frasier (1991)

The title sums this one up nicely, as this book tells the kiddos what was happening on Earth and beyond on the day they were born. Not in a “on-this-day-in-history” way, but in a cosmically poetic yet scientific way that lets the little one on your lap know that he or she is part of something truly grand. It starts on the eve of the birth, when the good news is passed from the birds to the whales, to the salmon and all around the Earth, then the sun, moon and stars all move into just the right place to welcome the newborn to the new reality. Indeed, everything welcomes each of us into the world. Gravity promises to keep us from floating away. Waves wash the beaches clean for our footprints. Forests make the oxygen we’ll need. Clouds welcome us with rain.

As with our existence here in these bodies of ours, all the natural processes in this story — photosynthesis, animal migrations, solar flares — might well be meaningless and subject to no laws other than those dictated by physics and chemistry … we’re all islands of existential loneliness floating through space on a ball of rock with no rhyme or reason sort of thing. And that’s fine. I spend at least half my waking hours thinking that’s the way it is, not that it matters what I think.

But at the same time, the fact that we can imagine something different makes that something different possible. And that’s what’s great about this book: It offers up a deeply spiritual view of human life on Earth without ever sounding preachy or hokey. On the day you were born, the sun was fusing atoms deep in its core because that’s what atoms do when subjected to such intense gravitational pull, and the energy produced by that process took the form of heat and light. Or, maybe, the sun really did send out those waves of energy just to light your days as you make your way through life. On the day you were born, the moon was reflecting the light of the sun off its lifeless gray surface as it orbited the Earth because it happened to be in the path of the sun’s rays. Or, maybe, the moon really did promise to grace your windowsill each month with a full and bright face simply because it thinks you are special.

Of course, you’re not special. You’re just the latest manifestation of hominids with opposable thumbs, and you’ll soon be nothing but dust. The same goes for your children, who will figure that out for themselves soon enough. But, until then, read them as many books like this as you possibly can … because, well, a little magic and hope never hurt anybody.

“Books for Young Explorers,” by the National Geographic Society (1972-1982)

When I was a kid, these hardcover books used to arrive in the mail four at a time every few months, and believe me it was an exciting time. These high-quality, full-color nuggets delved into many aspects of the natural world and offered up a kid-friendly version of the same well researched information and amazing photographs you’d find in the magazine itself, minus the naked boobs and starving children.

With titles like these, you know you’re in for some hot Earth-loving action: “Animals That Build Their Homes”; “Life in Ponds and Streams”; “Animals of the High Mountains”; “Explore a Spooky Swamp”; “A Day in the Woods”; “Let’s Go to the Moon”; and the epic “Creepy Crawly Things.” Good stuff. Unfortunately, the last reprint of any of these books occurred in 1995, so they’re no longer available from the publisher. Fortunately for me, my own set of books were boxed up and stored away in my grandparents’ attic where I stumbled upon them just in time to read to my own daughter, who loves them all, including the creepy crawly ones. Fortunately for you, most of these books can be purchased used from the usual online suspects, just be sure you’re getting the actual “Books for Young Explorers,” by National Geographic and not something else. If you’re looking for a way to supplement your family’s nature outings with some good nature reads, then I highly recommend any or all of these books.

That’s it for now. Hope some of you check these out. Please feel free to post your own suggestions below, and happy reading.