Stories have save-the-Earth message

BOOKS FOR KIDS

April 23, 1993|By Molly Dunham Glassman | Molly Dunham Glassman,Staff Writer

How can kids who never straighten their rooms be so fanatical about cleaning up the Earth? Maybe because they can blame their elders for our environmental mess, heaping on the guilt like so many layers of biodegradable compost.

Whatever the reason, here are some books that will keep that Earth Day fervor going strong.

* A patch of land that we might call a pasture is known as a paddock in Australia. "The Paddock: A Story in Praise of the Earth" by Lilith Norman, pictures by Robert Roennfeldt (Knopf, $12, ages 4-8) traces the history of one such piece of land from its inception as a mound of molten rock and lava.

Like a series of before-and-after snapshots, Mr. Roennfeldt's sweeping paintings takes readers through each era. On one page, dinosaurs are wandering through palm trees. The next, the land is submerged under a foaming ocean.

Then it comes alive again, with trees and birds, wombats and koalas. People appear. Aborigines gather in villages until white settlers drive them away, plowing up the paddock and clearing the trees.

A ranch gives way to a general store. "The railway line came, like steel fetters, and chained the town to the cities north and south," Ms. Norman writes. Finally it's the 1970s. Every inch of the paddock is paved over with roads and parking lots, a supermarket and a gas station.

But wait. On the next page, a futuristic car sits rusting on the main street. Buildings are deserted, and weeds push through cracks in the concrete:

"In time, like all the rocks and lava that came from the earth itself, the things that people had made would split and crumble and wear away. Then the rain would awaken the dark sour soil, and once again there would be grasses and trees and flowers."

It is a tough old planet, maybe tough enough to survive our human assault. That hopeful message is tempered by the

thought that the Earth's renewal will have to wait until the end of civilization.

* An almost identical format is used in "Window" by Jeannie Baker (Greenwillow, $13.95, ages 4-8). Using fabric, paper and scraps of everything from wood and fur to corrugated metal, Ms. Baker creates fantastic collages of the same scene: the view framed by the bedroom window of a farmhouse in Australia.

The wordless book opens with a young mother cradling a baby boy in her arms, looking out over the lush, unspoiled countryside. Turn the page and the boy is 2, playing in the yard while his mom hangs out the wash. In each scene, the boy grows older and the surrounding land becomes developed. First, it's just another house and a road. Then come more houses, more cars and trucks and bulldozers and, finally, a McDonald's.

We see the boy standing with his girlfriend in the back yard; on the next page, a moving van is being loaded with their furniture. The last scene is of the boy, now a man, cradling his own baby and looking through the window of his new home. In the middle of the idyllic trees is a sign for a future subdivision.

Even if you don't like "message" books, Ms. Baker's artwork makes this worth the price. Her scenes are so detailed, you can find something new on the 10th, 15th, even 20th time through.

* Must be something about Oceania, because another book worth checking out is by Margaret Mahy, a world-renowned author from New Zealand. She is a fine storyteller ("The %o Haunting," "The Changeover") and she has collected nine short stories in "The Girl With the Green Ear: Stories About Magic in Nature" illustrated by Shirley Hughes (Bullseye paperback, $3.25, ages 8-12).

The title story is about Minnie, who leaves her father's house when he insists she learn to play the French horn in the orchestra he conducts. Being an independent sort, she finds herself an apartment on the rundown side of town.

To disguise herself, she gets her hair dyed green. When some of the dye colors her ear green as well, she discovers she can hear what plants are saying. She begins a flourishing business as a houseplant healer, and there is a happily-ever-after ending, with a twist.

* For kids who like their plots a bit more didactic -- and young environmentalists do tend to be moralistic sorts -- there's "Sing a Whale Song," by Tom Chapin and John Forster, illustrated by Jerry Smath (Random House book and cassette package, $14, all ages).

It's about Timothy Finney, a boy who sits on the dock and dreams of exploring the sea. One day a humpback whale appears in the shallows and offers to grant Timothy a wish. He wishes to become a whale, and poof, he's a humpback, swimming off behind his magical friend.

After seeing the wonders of the deep, Timothy the whale swims under a garbage scow, through an oil slick and into a fishing net. The other whale rescues him, then teaches him a song to take back to the people on Earth, warning them about how they're ruining the seas.

On one side of the 20-minute cassette, Mr. Chapin reads the story. On the other, he sings the whale song and three other tunes about saving the environment.

The instrumental accompaniment is good -- recordings of whales singing add a haunting touch -- and Mr. Chapin's voice is always pleasant.

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