Wittenstein, Barry. The Day the River Caught Fire: How the Cuyahoga River Exploded and Ignited the Earth Day Movement. Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2023. 978-1-534-48083-4. Unpaged. $18.99. Grades 2-3.
This nonfiction picture book explores environmental activism in its historic account of Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River fire in 1969. In the 19th century, the Industrial Revolution led to the building of many factories along the banks of American rivers, and the waste they produced was dumped into these same rivers. In Ohio, no one seemed to care that the once beautiful pristine Cuyahoga River, which supported wildlife, was now contaminated with oil, chemicals, and other toxic materials. One hot summer day in 1969, a train was traveling on a bridge that crossed the waterway. Sparks from the train fell into the river and instead of fizzing out, they ignited the slimy surface causing an explosion and fire. It was quickly put out, but surprisingly this was not the first time the Cuyahoga caught fire. The mayor of Cleveland, Carl Stokes, was determined to clear up the pollution and traveled to Washington, DC to testify before Congress. After listening to him and others, Congress passed the Clean Air and Water Act. One year later, on April 22, 1970, Earth Day was celebrated for the first time. People all over the world began to recognize the importance of taking care of our planet. In the back matter, there is a photo of the 1952 fire and an author’s note on the environment, encouraging young people to get involved. The illustrations by Hartland are done in gouache in a folk art style. They are drawn on a small scale, yet there is a lot of action on each page.
THOUGHTS: Students will enjoy examining the images for the quirky details. This picture book is a great choice for Earth Day storytimes, particularly since the story takes place in a neighboring state. A worthwhile purchase for elementary libraries, especially those needing to refresh their Earth Day collection.
363.7 Environmental Problems
Novgorodoff, Danica. Alexander von Humboldt: Explorer, Naturalist & Environmental Pioneer. Crown Books for Young Readers, 2022. 978-1-524-77308-3. 39 p. $17.99. Grades K-3.
As a young boy growing up in eighteenth century Germany, Alexander von Humboldt was very curious about the natural world. He was full of questions and wanted to be an explorer like Captain James Cook. Alexander spent many hours outdoors and his observations led him to understand that animals, plants, and the weather are all connected to each other. So he studied science and prepared himself to travel to faraway lands. Von Humboldt’s first voyage was to South America, where he found towering mountains, lush vegetation and unfamiliar animals and people. He soon realized that this New World was not all that different from his home and that he shared a lot in common with the indigenous people. The German explorer recognized that the volcanoes here were situated in a chain and he developed theories about why they erupt. He later wrote and lectured on his findings, thus earning the title of “Father of Ecology.” The author-illustrator includes a detailed author’s note, maps, and a timeline in the back matter. Novgorodoff uses pencil and watercolor to create engaging illustrations and the text placement creates added interest.
THOUGHTS: This picture book biography is a great choice for ecology units or Earth Day storytimes. It may inspire young explorers to pursue a career in ecology. A must have for elementary collections.
921 Biography Denise Medwick, Retired, PSLA Member
509.2 Natural Science-Biography
Sidman, Joyce. Hello Earth! Poems to Our Planet. Eerdmans Books for Young Readers, 2021. 978-0-8028-5528-2. 62 p. $18.99. Grades 3-6.
This collection of free verse poetry about Earth was first published in Spain in 2016. An example of creative nonfiction, this volume contains verses in which a narrator, representing “some of your children-the human ones,” talks to the planet about its wonders. Sidman begins with a poem (“Floating”) about Earth’s place in the solar system and in the next two, brings us back to its surface. Following this, the narrator chats with Earth about its age, formation, and history, asking “What was your favorite part?” Other poems focus on volcanoes, earthquakes, continents, day and night, ecosystems, water and plants, giving us a good look at our world. The oversized volume ends by reminding us to enjoy the amazing marvels of our planet and to take care of it. The back matter provides more information, organized by topic and its related poem(s). Sidman’s works are best known for stunning illustrations and creative layouts. By contrast, the watercolor and acrylic drawings by Miren Asiain Lora may not seem as engaging. People are drawn on a small scale and the font is subdued and orderly. Perhaps this is done to focus our full attention on Mother Earth. A class of Earth Science students and their National Geographic certified teacher helped Sidman with understanding “how Earth works.”
THOUGHTS: This book of verse is perfect for Earth Day storytimes and works as an introduction to Earth Science Units. This imaginative work is a great addition to elementary collections, especially where poetry is popular.
811 Poetry Denise Medwick, Retired, PSLA Member
D’Aquino, Andrea. She Heard the Birds: The Story of Florence Merriam Bailey Pioneering Nature Activist. Princeton, Architectural Press, 2021. Unpaged. 978-1-648-96050-5. $18.95. Grades 1-3.
This picture book biography is the story of a woman who made a difference. Florence Merriam Bailey grew up in the late 19th century with her family who loved nature. Her mother was an astronomer and her father took the family on a summer long camping trip where she loved to observe the forest animals. Florence’s favorite creatures were birds and she studied their behavior and songs. She strongly disliked the latest fashion in hats, which were adorned with feathers and even the actual carcasses of birds. Bailey and her classmates at Smith College initiated a successful boycott of these hats. Florence became an avid ornithologist and promoted watching birds in a natural setting with binoculars in contrast to scientists who studied them in laboratories. She was the author of a field guide and other books on birds and their methods of communication. The author’s full bleed illustrations are done using hand-painted collage, oil pastel and pencil. Readers will enjoy examining the many colorful birds that are depicted.
THOUGHTS: This book is a great choice for elementary collections. It could be used during Women’s History Month, Earth Day or in science units. Children will learn about the wonder and beauty of our feathered friends and may be inspired to do some birdwatching on their own.
921 Biography Denise Medwick, Retired, PSLA Member
MacLachlan, Patricia. My Friend Earth. Chronicle Books, 2020. Unpaged. 978-0-811-87910-1. $17.99. Grades K-3.
This engaging picture book is a tribute to Earth, which is portrayed as a young girl of color. Using lyrical text, MacLachlan takes the reader on a journey through the seasons as well as a trip around the world. The story begins with Friend Earth waking up from a winter slumber and hearing the sounds of insects, birds, and a farmer busy at work. Next she is in Africa helping a zebra find its mother and a chimpanzee find a place to sleep. Friend Earth is also caretaker of all sea creatures and polar bears and reindeer on the tundra. Fall gives way to winter where once again Earth rests. The illustrations by Sanna, which are done in pencil, ink, and digital painting, are really the star of the show. Children will enjoy searching for the die-cuts that can be found on every double page spread. On the first page, Earth is sleeping and after turning the small flap, she is now awake on the opposite page. The edges of some pages are trimmed in a scalloped design, which mimic a stream of fall leaves in the wind and the rolling slopes of the distant mountains. With heavy use, there is some concern that some of the die-cuts might tear. The author’s hope is that children will appreciate the wonders of our planet and work to “be a good friend in return.”
THOUGHTS: This is a beautiful book that is a perfect read aloud for Earth Day. A strong purchase for all elementary collections.
Picture Book Denise Medwick, Retired, PSLA Member
Tags: Earth, Nature, Seasons, Picture Books, Earth Day, Toy and Movable Books
Cole, Henry. One Little Bag: An Amazing Journey. Scholastic Press, 2020. 978-1-338-35997-8. 48 p. $18.99. Grades K-3.
This wordless book takes readers on one paper bag’s journey from the forest, through a lifetime of different uses, and ultimately back to the forest. Opening spreads depict woods full of trees, and readers watch as one tree is chopped down, loaded onto a truck, and delivered to a sawmill. The tree is turned into a paper bag, and it’s journey continues when a small boy and his father use the bag to carry a flashlight home from the store. The bag is used over and over again through the years to carry lunches, sheet music, tools, snacks, an engagement ring, flower petals, toy blocks, and seashells. The bag passes through generations until it is ultimately used to plant a tiny evergreen tree. Even though this story doesn’t include any words, there is plenty to discuss and infer. Illustrations were created with an ink pen, and the only spot color is the brown paper bag and the red hearts that accumulate on the bag throughout the story. Thoughtful readers will pore over the illustrations, noting details such as woodland creatures, newspaper headlines, and family portraits. An Author’s Note at the end of the book shares this story’s inspiration and offers perspective about the importance of reusing and recycling.
Thoughts: This is sure to become an Earth Day classic, prompting discussions about what other seemingly disposable items people may creatively use more than once.
Picture Book Anne Bozievich, Southern York County SD