Books help children enjoy the Earth as well as save it

Books for children

April 22, 1992|By Molly Dunham Glassman | Molly Dunham Glassman,Staff Writer

Maybe it's time to take the guilt out of Earth Day. Instead of sentencing kids to a day of sorting recyclables, collecting litter and other honorable pursuits, let them take a break to celebrate the natural world they're trying to save.

Go for a stroll in the woods. Sit in the back yard and spy on birds. Or pull up a park bench and take in a squirrel show. Kids these days spend enough time fretting about the future. Books about environmentally correct behavior abound; here are a few in honor of Down-to-earth Day.

* It's no coincidence that many of the best books about the world around us have been around for a while. One of my favorite naturalists is Jim Arnosky, a writer who can make an encounter with a garter snake sound enticing.

Mr. Arnosky's "Secrets of a Wildlife Watcher: A Beginner's Field Guide," was first published in 1983. Beech Tree Books recently reissued it in a practical, water-repellent softcover ($7.95, ages 8 and up).

An excellent resource for adults and kids who want to wander out in the wild, this book includes a guide to animal tracks, hints on using binoculars and step-by-step instructions for constructing a blind for some serious wildlife observation.

Mr. Arnosky's style is engaging. Of the otters visiting his farm pond, he writes: "The otters always took the trout in their front paws and ate them like candy bars, head to tail, in big, crunchy bites."

At the end there are 15 blank pages to use as a wildlife journal, with plenty of room for notes, plus some of Mr. Arnosky's pencil sketches to use as inspiration for your own. It's perfect for stashing in a backpack, even if you're only hiking to the nearest city park.

* Speaking of parks, "Squirrel Watching," by Miriam Schlein, photographs by Marjorie Pillar (HarperCollins, $15, age 7 and up) inspires a brand-new appreciation for those furry gray fellows that seem to thrive in the skimpiest urban patches of trees.

Ms. Schlein has written more than 75 books for children, including "Pigeons." She packs an amazing number of facts into the 63 pages of "Squirrel Watching." For instance, the whiskers on a squirrel's face stick out about as wide as his body. He uses them as space-fitting guides. If a hole in a tree is too narrow for his whiskers, he knows not to shimmy inside, because his body would get stuck.

Also, squirrels have been known to take off on mass migrations. Scientists don't know why, but in 1968 as many as 20 million squirrels left their homes in several Eastern states and headed to parts unknown, ignoring everything in their paths. The number of squirrels killed on the roads was 1,000 times more than normal, and about 100,000 drowned squirrels were pulled out of a reservoir in New York state.

Chipmunks, prairie dogs and woodchucks are included in the ground squirrel family, and Ms. Schlein also writes about the town of Olney, Ill., home to about 1,000 albino squirrels. A white squirrel crossing the street in Olney always has the right of way. Honest.

* Another acclaimed naturalist and writer, Jean Craighead George, created "The Thirteen Moons" series in the 1960s. HarperCollins is now reissuing each of the 13 books in handsome, cloth-bound editions that have been updated and re-illustrated ($15, ages 8-12). The high-quality paper and full-page color plates should make them collectibles.

Each book takes one month and focuses on a North American animal and its life during that slice of time. November, for example, is "The Moon of the Gray Wolves." Ms. George follows a pack of wolves on the hunt in Alaska and writes of the family hierarchy and of one pup who won't survive the harsh demands of the winter.

Ms. George won the Newbery Medal for "Julie of the Wolves," and her talent for transporting readers to places they've never been carries over into this non-fiction work. "The Moon of the Gray Wolves," "The Moon of the Mountain Lions," "The Moon of the Alligators" and "The Moon of the Salamanders" are now available, with the rest of the titles to be released in coming months.

* Eugenie Clark, a professor of zoology at the University of Maryland in College Park, is one of the world's authorities on marine biology. She has teamed up with Ann McGovern, a well-known children's non-fiction writer, on "The Desert Beneath the Sea," illustrated by Craig Phillips (Scholastic, $13.95, ages 7 and up).

They write about their discoveries on the floor of the sea, particularly during Ms. Clark's many diving expeditions in the Red Sea. Readers find out how Ms. Clark hid to study the mating habits of garden eels (they stand straight up in the sand, swaying back and forth in the current like tall leaves of grass).

There's an index for all of the fish, coral and crustaceans introduced, including the Tricky Niki, which Ms. Clark discovered and named Trickonotus nikii, after her son Niki, then 6. Mr. Phillips' delicate watercolors add to this fine book.

* Younger readers will enjoy "Making Tracks: A Slide-and-See Book," by Stephen Savage (Lodestar, $10, ages 4-8). Each double-page spread depicts a different habitat, and the text offers a clue about the animal in question. Readers then pull the tab, and the animal's tracks move across the page, followed by the mystery guest.

There's a rattlesnake slithering across the desert, a polar bear padding across an ice floe and even a pet dog making tracks across a beach. Mr. Savage's cut-paper collages are bold and inviting.

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