Earth Matters: Picture books can help us talk to kids about climate change

Talking to kids about the climate crisis can feel overwhelming. Where do I start? What if I worried them?

The Picture Books take major events and otherwise chilling subjects and bundle them into approximately 32 pages of art, context, and connections that we share together. Picture books – along with novels and comics – are incredible tools for generating empathy and can help in climate conversations by keeping us focused on facts, empowerment and action.

In his essay, “Mirrors, Windows, and Sliding Glass Doors,” education professor Rudine Sims Bishop explains, “Literature transforms human experience and reflects it back to us, and in that reflection we can see our own lives and experiences as part of the greater human experience. Children see literature as a means of self-affirmation – as mirrors of themselves, windows to other worlds, and sliding glass doors that invite you into those worlds.

When we feel connected, empathy tends to come more easily. Like windows, mirrors and sliding glass doors, picture books teach compassion for the most marginalized on our planet whose lives are already upended by the climate crisis: the underserved and homeless, the children of world, even endangered animal populations.

When looking for climate books, look for titles from Indigenous creators and activists who do the work, and lead conversations with compassion. Do not be afraid that climate change affects us and will affect us all, and that we all deserve a safe and healthy future.

Choosing climate change picture books may seem simple – just go to the science or nonfiction sections and pick up books with lots of text and data. But it’s not that simple: each reader has a privileged balance between text and image that allows them to surrender to a story and get carried away.

Data-rich picture books like “What a Waste” (French) and “A Kid’s Book about Climate Change” (Artis/Greenspan) work well for children who sit with books for long hours. Others will be drawn to Rahele Jomepour Bell’s vibrant illustrations in “To Change a Planet” which author Christina Soontornvat wrote to “explain climate change to [kids] with truth and also with hope.

Children struggling with anxiety and older readers may find it easier to approach climate change through the sliding glass door: escaping to alternate futures and worlds to learn more about their own. Graphic novels “AstroNuts” (Scieszka/Weinberg) and “CatStronauts: Mission Moon” (Brockington) send hilarious heroes to seek out other planets to support human life. “The Marrow Thieves” (Dimaline) and the Island Book series (Dahm) question and condemn the colonization of “new” lands, challenging readers to uncover their past and refuse to repeat it.

Once they know how and why the world is changing, readers can understand why its beauty is worth saving.

“The Bear Report” (Heder), “Many: The Diversity of Life on Earth” (Davies/Sutton), “Where’s Rodney? (Bogan/Cooper) and “My ocean is blue” (Lebeuf/Barron) share the majesty of the outdoors and bring children closer to our planet’s biodiversity. The child characters of “Hoot” (Hiaasen), “Zonia’s Rainforest” (Neal) and “Luz Sees the Light” (Davila) are inspired by and involved in environmentalism.

The future of humanity depends on abandoning the perfection and individualism demanded by white supremacy and capitalism and building a society based on mutual aid.

Mutual aid is the exchange of resources for mutual benefit – taking responsibility for community care to change political conditions. Books like “We Are Water Protectors” (Lindstrom/Goade), “I Have the Right to Save My Planet” (Serres) and “Green Green: A Community Garden Story” (Lamba/Lamba/Sanchez) remind readers that the change starts with us.

Young people may not feel empowered because they can’t vote or run for office, but they can change the world by speaking out against injustice and sharing food with a neighbour. “The Queen on Our Corner” (Christopher) and “Our Little Kitchen” (Tamaki) challenge children to share resources and see the value in everyone around them, including those who have less than ‘them.

“Milo Imagines the World” (Robinson/de la Pena) and “Dessert Island” (Zhu) teach readers how privilege and prejudice can dictate and distort our view of the world. “Better Than New / Mejor Que Nuevo” (Broder/Buckley) and “I Like Old Clothes” (Hoberman) are about reducing, recycling and seeing the potential of used items. If adults leave children a planet to grow old on, children can build a more hopeful society that prioritizes the collective good.

Picture books about respecting and unpacking big feelings can better prepare us for difficult conversations and practicing empathy. “The Girl and the Wolf” (Vermette/Flett) and “What do you do with a problem? (Yamada/Besom) shows children that they have courage and strength within them that will only grow stronger as they grow. “Here and now” (Denos/Goodale) and “Your mind is like the sky” (Ballard/Carlin) can guide this growth through mindfulness. “After the Storm” (Stmple/Yolen) reminds us that hard times are over and our loved ones are there to help.

Our younger generations inherit what we leave behind: be it love and respect for the natural world, and the tools to build communities of care and hope. And picture books are here to help!

Allie Martineau (she/they) is the communications and marketing coordinator at the Hitchcock Center for the Environment, and an artist and book reviewer with a master’s degree in children’s writing from Simmons University. She thanks Friends of the Eric Carle Museum Bookstore for their help in compiling the list of books for this article, which you can find in its entirety at hitchcockcenter.org along with works cited.

Earth Matters has been a project of the Hitchcock Center for the Environment for 13 years. Amid the pandemic, the Hitchcock Center has adapted its programming and has a sliding scale fee structure for families facing financial hardship. To help the Hitchcock Center during this difficult time, consider making a donation at hitchcockcenter.org.

About Herbert L. Leonard

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