Awareness of the Natural World

By Herbert Kohl

Publishers carefully manicure the list of books they publish, and slot them into categories by age as well as genre: young adult, beginning reader, adult romance, and so on. However, there are a number of books that cross these boundaries books written for adult readers that are equally compelling to children, and books intended for children that are appealing to adults.

Pulitzer Prize- and National Book Award-winning poet Mary Oliver’s latest book of poetry, Dog Songs, crosses these boundaries, although the spiritual undertones are often complex and imply adult sensibilities. The poems are about or addressed to Mary Oliver’s dogs, who sometimes reply. They are affectionate meditations on the bond between people and dogs. For example, “Conversations” begins like this:

Said Bear, “I know I’m supposed to keep my eye on you, but it’s difficult the way you lag behind and keep talking to people.”

Well, how can you be keeping your eye on me when you’re half a mile ahead?

“True,” said Bear. “But I’m thinking of you all the time.”

Dog Songs
By Mary Oliver
(Penguin Press, 2013)

Oliver’s poems are written in direct, ordinary language perfect for reading aloud in school and, as I do, to the mirror. Dog Songs is full of themes that would work for writing projects and improvisations. I can imagine young children performing scenes between pets and their human companions.

Unlikely Friendships for Kids: The Dog & the Piglet, and 4 Other Stories of Animal Friendships
By Jennifer S. Holland
(Workman Publishing, 2012 and 2013)

On the other hand, Jennifer Holland’s three volumes of Unlikely Friendships are examples of books published for children (grade 2 and on) that adults can read with thought-provoking pleasure. They are adapted from Holland’s “adult book,” Unlikely Friends. Each volume has five short stories about a friendship between animals that usually do not mix. Each story is accompanied by a wonderful photo of the actual pair. Here are some of the pairings: a dog and a piglet, a hippopotamus and a goat, an iguana and a cat, an elephant and dog, a baby rhesus monkey and a dove. The stories are rich sources for discussion and writing. Tales of crossing seemingly impossible boundaries can be worked into the curriculum, spurring imaginings of congenial living and unlikely humane solutions to difficult problems.  

Herbert Kohl is currently working on a book about the adult lives of students he has encountered during his 50 years of teaching. He still teaches writing.