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Each year on Earth Day comes elementary school teachers across the U.S. pull out The Lorax and other tried and true read alouds. Many elementary teachers – a group that is disproportionately white women – tend to gravitate towards the books they grew up with. This is a problem. And while there's nothing wrong with the environmental message of The Lorax, we should agree it's time to find new stories for our students. Students of all backgrounds deserve access to diverse stories. As Dr. Rudine Sims Bishops says, diverse stories can serve as mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors. This year, let’s update the picture books we use in our classrooms to celebrate Earth Day. Here are just seven to start. Be sure to share your favorites in the comments!
Seeds of Change by Jen Cullerton Johnson
This is a true story, set in Kenya, about the story of Wangari Maathai and the women-led Green Belt Movement. This story is special for several reasons. The story features a strong, Black woman protagonist. Wangari Maathhai defied gender norms in her country by earning a masters degree in biology and was elected to parliament. She was also the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize. And while it centers on the life of Wangari Maathai, it demonstrates that change happens through collective action.
The Thing About Bees: A Love Letter by Shabazz Larkin
Two many books about Black characters center on racism and suffering. Students of all racial backgrounds need stories that feature Black kids simply living, thriving, and being loved. This beautiful book is a loving poem from a father to his sons. It also helps to explain the connection between bees and the food we eat. This book is a real treat! It offers a chance to connect science and literacy. It’s also a great opportunity for kids to learn appreciation for all living things, including the ones we might find annoying or scary.
The Great Kapok Tree by Lynne Cherry
This book offers a great way to connect Earth Day to lessons about food chains and ecosystems. In this story, a man is trying to cut down a giant tree. He gets tired before he can finish, and falls asleep. In his dreams, a child and the animals of the rainforest teach him about the interconnectedness of living things. According to Social Justice Books, “the book is dedicated to Chico Mendes, the murdered Brazilian union and environmental activist ‘who gave his life in order to preserve a part of the rainforest.’” This is an opportunity to talk with older kids about the relationship between corporate greed and environmental and human rights atrocities.
Young Water Protectors by Aslan Tudor
No conversation about Earth Day or environmental justice is complete without indigenous stories. The Great Kapok Tree connects to Amazon indigenous communities. Young Water Protectors is an opportunity to discuss with students the indigenous communities of Turtle Island. Young Water Protectors is not only a great non-fiction text which offers another look at youth-led activism. It is also a vital chance to ensure non-Native students understand that Native Americans are still here. Students should know that Native communities have been protecting the environment since before the United States existed. Linking the Native fight for sovereignty to broader environmental justice is another important reason to share this book with your elementary students.
Jayden’s Impossible Garden by Mélina Mangal
I taught for 12 years in New York City public schools. It can be easy for city kids and their adults to forget their connection to nature. In this story, Jayden helps show his mom that nature is all around them. This can spark a great conversation with kids. Ask them what nature they can observe around their school or community. Jayden also helps lead the creation of a community garden. This is a wonderful story for helping kids to see themselves as environmental change-makers, no matter what community they live in.
Aani and the Tree Huggers by Jeannine Atkins
Aani and the Tree Huggers is another international story, and another story based on true events. Like Seeds of Change this also tells the story of a women-led movement. In this story, a group of women in India fighting to protect a forest. Both these stories offer a chance to connect environmental justice to gender justice. Like all of the stories on this list, this book also highlights the interdependence of humans and living and non-living things.
Creekfinding: A True Story - by Jacqueline Briggs Martin
Many young people are anxious about climate change. It can feel like an insurmountable challenge for me as an adult, too. Creekfinding: A True Story offers some valuable hope. In Creekfinding, a man named Michael Olsterholm restores a creek which once ran under his farm. As this story shows, the damage that has been done to our environment is human-made. But humans can also engineer solutions.
These are just a sample of the many diverse, modern, intersectional Earth Day stories out now. They can launch great conversations with students of all ages. These stories give us a chance to celebrate Earth Day with a fresh and stronger approach. They can help kids see the connection between the environment, science, social justice, social and emotional learning, and many other topics. In 2022, it’s time for teachers to leave the outdated picture books behind, and start some new Earth Day traditions.
You can find more texts for teaching about environmental and climate change for Earth Day or any day here.
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