Continent Ecology

Children's books that promote environmental education in the primary grades

By Jeanne White

Illustrator: David McLimans

When I taught 1st and 2nd grade, I looked forward to Earth Day each year. I was a member of my building’s Earth Day committee, and I enjoyed compiling resources, searching for lessons, and distributing activity packets to the kindergarten through 3rd grade teachers. As students moved through the grade levels the faculty noticed how easily young children retained environmental messages.

Undoubtedly, students responded most positively to the lessons involving picture books, both fiction and nonfiction, that used illustrations to reveal environmental concerns. The teachers continually used children’s literature outside of language arts lessons and read-alouds. The media specialists stocked the school library with fiction and nonfiction picture books representing nearly every topic covered in the K-3 curriculum in content areas such as science and social studies.

One way to transmit the importance of continuous environmental action is by presenting students environmental threats to each continent.

South America

Author and illustrator Lynne Cherry’s book The Great Kapok Tree: A Tale of the Amazon Rainforest (Gulliver Green, 1990) focuses on South America’s Amazon rainforest. Cherry visited the rainforest to create sketches and to develop her story. The inside covers of the book include a world map depicting the current and original extent of the rainforest regions. The first page explains the complex layers of the rainforest and how the kapok tree stands among the “community of animals.” 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.” My students were always captivated with the story, about a man who is ordered to chop down a kapok tree but dozes off while resting from the hard labor. Each creature, from a tiny insect to a mighty jaguar, explains the importance of the tree, including holding the soil in place during heavy rains, providing food and shelter, and producing oxygen.

Cherry includes the theme of the book toward the end when the anteater whispers to the man, “What happens tomorrow depends upon what you do today.” The causes of deforestation are not provided, but students could research this as well as learn about the products in their own lives that originated in tropical rainforests. Students can write letters of support and raise funds for organizations working to prevent deforestation.


A story about the bleak, frozen continent at the South Pole is simply titled Antarctica (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1990). With few sentences on each page, Helen Cowcher’s illustrations help tell the story of how the introduction of humans to the continent in 1899 has taken a significant toll on the land. Native creatures, including the emperor penguin, Weddell seal, and Adelie penguin, are shown in everyday activities such as caring for their young and searching for food. Antarctica introduces the leopard seal as the natural enemy of the emperor penguin. As the story unfolds, men in helicopters arrive, driving the Adelie penguins from their nests on the shore and another enemy, the skua birds, descend on the abandoned eggs. Nearby humans, creating explosions in the ice, forever frighten the penguins from that spot. Weddell seals become anxious as the hulls of ships break through the pack ice. The uncertainty that the humans bring is the theme of this book, portrayed on the last page as the “seals and penguins cannot tell yet whether they [humans] will share or destroy their beautiful Antarctica.”

Although the book does not include resources for further information about environmental threats in Antarctica or ways to prevent them, students can imagine the damaging effects of spoiled nesting and hunting grounds within the story. Children can learn the importance of Antarctica as a place to research the clean air, water, and ice to understand changes in the Earth’s environment. The effects of rising global temperatures in the polar regions can be studied as well as how citizens can reduce their carbon output.

The Arctic

At the northern polar region, the European continent can be explored as the portion of the Arctic Circle, which includes Greenland, Finland, Norway, and Sweden. The nonfiction illustrated picture book Great Ice Bear: The Polar Bear and the Eskimo (Morrow Junior Books, 1999), by Dorothy Hinshaw Patent, includes chapters that describe the life of a polar bear, legends and beliefs about the polar bear, the Inuit people who first settled in Greenland and the role polar bears play in their lives. In the introduction, Patent explains the appeal of polar bears and the difficulty in obtaining information about the relationship between humans and bears in particular.

The book ends with details about environmental threats to the Arctic such as oil and gas extraction, elevated PCB levels in Norway, and reduced surface area of ice from increased planet temperatures. Patent offers no specific suggestions for combating these threats, so teachers will have to provide resources and activities.


To my Midwestern students, Australia represents a mysterious and beautiful place on the opposite region of the classroom globe. The Great Barrier Reef is the subject of One Less Fish (Charlesbridge, 1998), a counting book by Kim Michelle Toft and Allan Sheather, produced with the support of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority. Although the reef has been on the United Nation’s World Heritage List since 1981, the authors clarify that the book portrays what could happen if the reef was left unprotected by law.

This counting book begins with 12 fish on the page. On each subsequent page, one fish is removed due to harm by environmental threats such as scuba diving, spear fishing, littering, and dragging anchors from nearby boats. A suggestion to prevent environmental damage follows the introduction of each threat. A glossary includes terms like food chain and algae, as well as information about fish commonly found in the Coral Sea.

Asia (Vietnam)

Although most primary grade teachers don’t share Vietnam War details with students, Holly Keller’s Grandfather’s Dream (Greenwillow Books, 1994) has been used successfully even in 2nd grade. In the prologue, Keller explains that the Plain of Reeds in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta wetland region was once home to the Sarus crane, the planet’s largest flying bird. During the Vietnam War, U.S. armed forces dug canals to drain the area, thus disrupting the natural water flow and vegetation growth. As a result, wildlife such as the Sarus crane left the area or died. In 1992, EARTHWATCH and the International Crane Foundation sponsored a project, Saving Cranes, in Vietnam. Keller joined a group of American and British non-scientists collecting data and talking to students in local schools about wildlife conservation.

The story becomes that of a young boy, Nam, and his grandfather, hoping for the return of the cranes now that the village has built dikes to keep the water in the Plain of Reeds. The rainy season comes and goes without the cranes’ return and the farmers wish to claim the land to plant rice. Before the next rainy season however, Nam’s dogs find “gray and funny looking” birds that turn out to be the cranes. The grandfather conveys the importance of the cranes as symbols of long life and happy families.

Keller’s story suggests the importance for wildlife preservation, although she doesn’t offer ways for U.S. students to play a role. Students could research local wetlands to learn of wildlife threats and explore how they could take action.


Africa is rich with animals that appeal to children, such as elephants and giraffes. Here Is the African Savanna (Hyperion Books, 1999), by Madeleine Dunphy, demonstrates through words and pictures the interdependence of animals, their dependence upon grass, which depends on rain. Each page introduces a group of animals by its relationship to another, “Here is the giraffe who watches the lions who stalk the zebras who eat the grass…” Dunphy’s book also features lesser-known animals such as the impala and tick birds.

North America

For a topic close to home, my favorite story is Chris Van Allsburg’s Just a Dream (Houghton Mifflin Co., 1990). When young Walter falls asleep one night, his bed takes him to a depressing future in which his neighborhood is covered in trash, the Grand Canyon is invisible through clouds of smog, and Mt. Everest has become the site for a littered resort. Each of the eight scenarios is illustrated on a double-page spread. At the end of the book, Walter wakes up and understands what he has to do to prevent those dreams from becoming real. He sorts recyclable items from trash he had previously thrown together and plants a tree in his yard on his birthday.

That night he dreams again but this time of the hopeful future with illustrations of his fully grown tree, a man using a push mower, laundry hanging from a clothesline and clear, blue skies. Before I read the last page, my students commented that the scene looks as if it is from the 1950s or 1960s. Van Allsburg anticipates this same sentiment as he writes, “This isn’t the future, Walter thought. It’s the past.” Although there are aspects of this past that are not the least bit environmentally friendly—gas-guzzling automobiles come to mind—Van Allsburg’s portrait of a human scale, less consumption-oriented past can make for valuable discussions about the future. My students offered ways to conserve energy at school and in their homes, including creating posters to hang in the hallways and in their house to remind others to be eco-friendly.

Jeanne White is an assistant professor at Elmhurst College in Elmhurst, Ill.