Twenty years ago, I picked up a blank book and began tracking seasonal events in our neighborhood. I've never stopped.
In late winter, I document the first time a sunrise is accompanied by cardinal song and the first afternoon punctuated by a steady drip of meltwater. I await the green haze of new leaves across the landscape in spring, and the flicker of bats feeding on insects at dusk. Summer brings fledgling birds begging at the feeder and muskrats zigzagging through the wetland. Before I know it, the yard is buried in dry leaves. Ice has spread across the lake, and owls are hooting their mating duets from leaf-bare branches.
The rhythms of nature have practical value, telling living things when to grow, when to reproduce, when to hunker down. And although our survival no longer relies entirely on these cues, watching the seasons — a practice called phenology — inspires a deeper appreciation for the workings of nature and our impacts on it.
Children are especially keen observers, and children's books offer many ways to connect with nature — even when kids can't go outdoors. Here are four picture books that explore the changing seasons and the influence of nature on our lives.
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"Hush Hush, Forest" by Mary Casanova; woodcuts by Nick Wroblewski
(University of Minnesota Press, 2019, ages 5 and older)
Cozied under the covers at bedtime, an adult and child gaze at an open book. Outside their bedroom window, twilight is falling over a woodland. " … Golden leaves twirl past our windows," the adult says to the child, "shadows lengthen, fall sets in." Casanova's free-form poetry transports the reader outdoors, where the landscape is shifting from fall to winter. In brief but buoyantly descriptive phrases, she unfolds the complex phenology of this "shoulder season" — from migration and hibernation to the first snowfall and appearance of the northern lights. Wroblewski's 60 hand-carved woodcuts have perfect symmetry with the text, in slightly muted colors that reinforce the story's dreamy tone. This is the second picture-book collaboration between Minnesota natives Casanova and Wroblewski for University of Minnesota Press.
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"Wait, Rest, Pause: Dormancy in Nature" by Marcie Flinchum Atkins
(Millbrook Press, 2019, ages 4-9)
Living things must respond to their environment in order to survive. One approach to poor conditions is dormancy, when plants and animals become temporarily inactive. Author Atkins begins with an invitation to the child's imagination. What if you were a tree, a chickadee, an earthworm or some other living thing faced with winter cold, drought, or extreme heat? Each section describes how you would prepare. Then, says Atkins, "You would pause." And when the time was right, you would "stir, burst, appear!" Published by Millbrook Press (an imprint of Minnesota's Lerner Publishing Group), this book is packaged as an informational text — the equivalent of nonfiction in children's publishing. But it reads as well as a storybook. The text and stock photos will appeal to older children, but there's also back matter that dives deeper into each type of dormancy.
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"On a Snow-Melting Day: Seeking Signs of Spring" by Buffy Silverman
(Millbrook Press, 2020, ages 4-9)
This is another recent offering from Millbrook Press, focused on the transition from winter to spring. It's a perfect match for our current seasonal conditions, which Silverman celebrates with bouncy, rhyming text and wordplay that kids will love to memorize and repeat. "On a drip-droppy, slip-sloppy, snow-melting day … ," she tells us, nature is emerging from dormancy in exciting ways. The author also contributed some of the photos, which are laid out like a scrapbook. The back matter offers readable yet scientifically accurate information on each event — just enough detail to engage older readers, or to help adults faced with curious little ones asking "why?" and "how?"
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"Outside In" by Deborah Underwood; illustrations by Cindy Derby
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2020, ages 4-7)
Although this book has no Minnesota connections, it deals with a timely and universal subject: our relationship to nature. Like a parable recounted by an omniscient narrator, Underwood's story treats the natural world as an old friend or family member we've lost touch with. "Once we were part of Outside, and Outside was part of us," it begins. Our lives are now spent mostly indoors — but Outside is more than trees and birds. It's the grains that feed us, the water we drink, the sunlight that wakes us in the morning. Derby's watercolor and graphite illustrations — including elaborate details made with ink-soaked dried flowers and textile fibers — reflect the mood of the text. The color palette even reinforces differences between settings, with the indoors in cool or dark tones and Outside depicted in vibrant shades of green, yellow and red. These days especially, we could all use a little more Outside.
Christine Petersen is an environmental educator and freelance writer (christinepetersen.com). She lives in the Twin Cities.