100 Children’s Books that Support Sustainable Values
I began collecting good kids books for my children before they were even born, often bought used at library and yard sales, and I've continued. This is the first half of the list, covering books for young children. Older kids books and the second part will be along when I get around to it. I welcome additional suggestions, of course.
Notes on this list - this is not intended to be a comprehensive list of good children’s books, but rather a selection of books that besides being well written and entertaining, also offer important messages that children don’t often hear in our culture. Things like “growing and making things yourself is important and valuable work” and “Cooperation and kindness are more important than competition and consumption.” We’re not interested in books that are simply moralistic, however, but fun, readable, beautiful books that also teach children what their parents value. Children need lots of books, and they don't always have to be perfect in every way. But it is important for our children to be able to imagine the world we'd like them to live in, and books are an important part of that.
The age ranges here are approximate - use your best judgement. The ideal situation is for parents to read books to their children, or to read them concurrently with older children, and thus be able to discuss them together. We’ve noted when there are issues parents might want to discuss with the children - sometimes older books that are otherwise valuable have ugly racial or cultural messages, and many contemporary children’s books have strongly vegetarian messages that families that raise animals for food might be uncomfortable with. We have tried to include a mix of urban and rural images, although images of people growing food and making objects tend to be biased towards the country. In general, we recognize (and hope you will too) that no book is perfect, but that these are good and important books for children.
These are book for children 3 and under - simple language, lots of pictures, simple, quiet stories, potential for interaction.
1. _Maisie On the Farm_ by Lucy Cousins. There are an infinity of ‘visit to the farm” books, but the Maisie ones are especially charming to little people, and among other things, Maisie’s visit includes a chance to shovel manure.
2. _How Kind_ by Mary Murphy. Mary Murphy writes the best books for little children imaginable. In this one, everyone in the barnyard wants to be nice to each other. The perfect book for very small children.
3. _Joy_ by Joyce Carol Thomas An African-American grandmother and grandson enjoy nature together in every season. Lyrical, lovely text with intergenerational images.
4. _A Little Bit of Soul Food_ by Amy Wilson Sanger. This book and the 6 others (among them _Let’s Nosh_ and _Yum Yum Dim Sum_) introduce and celebrate traditional cultural foods to very young children. Funny lyrics and funky quilted visual.
5. _It is the Wind_ by Ferida Wolff. A little boy identifies the sounds of the night with many soothing repetitions. There are comparatively few African American children in most books with rural scenes and this is a pleasant exception.
6. _The Big Red Barn_ by Margaret Wise Brown. The perfect farm book for babies - soothing, peaceful, adorable, full of animals.
7. _Pancakes, Pancakes_ by Eric Carle. Personally, I’m not a big fan of Eric Carle’s books, but this is an exception. Young Jack wants pancakes for breakfast, but his mother is busy, and he has to help - he takes the wheat to the mill, collects the egg, and gets the jam from the cellar.
9. _Farm Tales_ var. authors - A Golden Book Collection. The Little Golden books were the high quality children’s books before Dr. Seuss. Some of them are better than others, but some of the best ones are collected in this single volume. Here is the story of _The Little Red Hen_ who gets no help at any stage of bread making, except the eating. Here are Margaret Wise Brown’s little gardeners (gloss rapidly over the spraying part of the book), and favorite of all of my children, here is _The Boy with the Drum_ who parades through the world with the animals behind him.
10. _Good Bread: A Book of Thanks_ By Brigitte Weninger and Anne Moller. A little girl and her mother bake bread, and the history of the loaf is shown in beautiful illustrations, beginning from seed, and including the growing of the wheat, hand grinding it, and an expression of thanks and hope that other children have such good bread. It is a lovely, lovely book, with a message that doesn't require faith but lightly invokes it.
11. _To Market, To Market_ by Anne Miranda. A woman goes shopping and keeps coming back with inconveniently alive animals who wreak havoc in her house. She resolves the difficulty by going shopping for fresh vegetables (admittedly at a supermarket, but the book is so good this is worth overlooking) and making soup for the lot. All of my children *adored* this book.
12. _A Ride on Mother's Back_ by Emery and Durga Bernhard. Asher, my 16 month old likes to look at the pictures of children all over the world being carried by parents, siblings, grandparents in the course of their daily activities. His big brothers like the descriptions of what it is like to live in each place.
13. _Carry Me, Mama_ by Monica Devine and Pauline Paquin. The glorious paintings show a little girl coming to terms with not being carried all the time as she gets stronger and more independent.
14. _Jamberry_ by Bruce Degen. A silly fantasy about a world covered in berries, it glories in the pleasures of simple things like a ripe strawberry. Another family favorite.
15. _The Farmer's Alphabet_ by Mary Azarian. The perfect first alphabet book, friendly woodblock prints of farm animals and other things familiar to northern children in agricultural regions look out. Even babies love this book. The book was specifically created by Azarian because many alphabet books represented a world the Vermont school children she taught had never seen. All her books are wonderful, including _The Gardener's Alphabet_.
16. _Hush Little Baby_ by Sylvia Long. Instead of Papa buying things for his baby, Mama helps here little rabbit see beautiful things in the world around him. Gorgeous illustrations.
17. _Summertime_ by George Gershwin and Co., illustrated by Mike Wimmer. Stunningly painted, a rural, obviously poor African-American family has a wonderful time enjoying the summer. I sing this song to my children every night.
18. _Naamah, Noah's Wife_ by Sandy Eisenberg Sasso. If you don't object to the Judeo-Christian story content, this is an excellent book. It shows Naamah's part in the Noah story, based on a story from the Talmud. Naamah is told by G-d to gather seeds and plants, while her husband gathers the animals. She almost forgets the dandelions, and because of that, they are given special gifts to spread. She then replants the earth. A potent metaphor, and simple enough for young children.
These books are for children from 2-6.
19. _Oxcart Man_ by Donald Hall. If I could recommend one single book for this age group, this would be it. It is a beautiful book, with lovely folk-art illustrations and the poetic language Hall is deservedly famous for (he’s a major poet). My children love this book, and can recite the text with me. In it, a 19th century farmer and his family collect “everything they had made and grown that was left over” to sell.
20. _Tomorrow’s Alphabet_ by George Shannon . Alphabet books are a dime a dozen, but this one is truly fascinating when teaching children that things don’t just magically appear in their world - that everything comes from some source. The book shows an item, and “tomorrow” it becomes something beginning with each letter. So, for example, for “A,” an apple seed is “Tomorrow’s Apple” and for P, clay is “Tomorrow’s Pot”
21. _This Land is Your Land_ by Woody Guthrie. The Classic Folk song, with lovely illustrations by Kathie Jakobson. Includes the full lyric text, with its call to personal action and social justice.
22. _Miss Bridie Chose a Shovel_ by Leslie Connor. Like all of Connor’s books, and like nearly everything illustrated by the sublime Mary Azarian, this is a lovely book. “She could have had a chiming clock or a porcelain figurine, but Miss Bridie chosen a shovel back in 1856.” Miss Bridie sets out from Ireland to the new world, and her shovel helps her in every stage of her life.
23. _Just Enough and Not Too Much_ by Kaethe Zemack. Simon the fiddler wants more and more…and then he doesn’t anymore (I suspect we can all identify).
24. _A Chair For My Mother_ by Vera B. Williams. A hard-working family saves and saves to buy a beautiful, comfortable chair to sit in at the end of the day. A great book, with several sequels.
25. _Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus_ by Mo Willems. This might seem like an odd choice for this list, but the techniques the pigeon uses to try and convince the reader to let him drive the bus are a classic laundry list of peer pressure and manipulation techniques (often the same ones used by children to get stuff from their parents ;-). My four year old thought this was the funniest book on earth (plus, you can sing it to the tune of John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt…Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus/It’s not a good idea….), and found it completely ridiculous that anyone would ever believe these comments. There are many sequels, including the rather sweet but funny _The Pigeon Has Feelings Too_.
26. _How Groundhog's Garden Grew_ by Lynne Cherry. This is my favorite gardening book for children. The illustrations are stunning, including drawings of plants at every stage of development, and the story is endearing. Concepts like thinning and perennials are included. Little Groundhog learns he can't just take food, he has to grow his own. A wonderful book.
27. _Joseph Had a Little Overcoat_ by Simms Taback. Based on a folktale, Joseph has a lovely overcoat, but one day it gets old and warm. What does he do about it? The cutout illustrations show it becoming a vest, a scarf, a handkerchief, a button and finally... a story about making things out of other things. Good even for younger kids, but has lasting value.
28._Snowflake Bentley_ by Mary Azarian. I know her name appears often here, but that's only because her books are so invaluable. This is the true story of the first man to seriously study snow crystals, and besides being a lovely book, it is also a reminder that the local is just as important and magical as the distant. The book allows children to understand that close knowledge of a single place is at least as valuable as wide knowledge.
29. _Keep Looking_ by Millcent Selsam and Joyce Hunt. This is my three year old, Isaiah's favorite book. He is our noticer - he is always the first to hear the bird or see the flash of a deer's tail. And this book is all about the small creatures and life one can find in an ordinary winter landscape.
30. _Agatha's Feather Bed_ by Carmen Agra Deedy. Agatha operates a small shop in New York city, and spins and weaves. She tells children "Everything comes from somewhere/nothing comes from nowhere," but forgets that this dictate applies to her as well. She orders a feather bed from a catalog, and one night, some angry, cold geese appear. Her resolution to the problem is wonderful, and the illustrations in the corner show the origins of many common items. The reminder that we cannot pretend things just come into being is essential.
31. _Cook-A-Doodle-Doo_ by Janet Stevens and Susan Stevens Crummel. An ambitious rooster, grandson of The Little Red Hen, famed in story, decides that he wants to learn to cook too. He has the same difficulties getting the cat, the dog and the goose to help him that his grandmother did, but fortunately, Potbellied Pig, Turtle and Iguana are there to "help." The book provides careful and very funny instructions for cooking, and also a good reminder that mistakes happen in the kitchen. Recipe for strawberry shortcake included.
32. _A House Is a House For Me_ by Mary Ann Hoberman. This lovely poem is an invitation to think of the whole world as home to someone or something. Children are shown over and over in their own "houses" crafted of boxes and tables.
33. _Homeplace_ by Anne Shelby. This gorgeously illustrated (by Wendy Anderson Halperin) tale shows a grandmother telling her granddaughter the history of their home over the last two centuries. Each generation improves the home and adapts it to meet their needs, and the little girl learns that she too will be part of her history.
34. _The Tale I Told Sasha_ by Nancy Willard. All Nancy Willard's books are surreal and beautiful, but this one was Eli's favorite for many years. A little girl in a small house on a rainy day is given a yellow ball by her busy mother, and magical, Lewis Carrollesque journeys ensue in her imagination. We are told, "Our house is quiet, small and plain,/and yet its rooms run far and wide." The book is truly magical, as are David Christiana's illustrations. Another one of hers to check out, _Pish Posh said Heironymous Bosh_ doesn't really have anything to do with sustainability but is so terrific I have to mention it.
35. _Stone Soup_ by Marcia Brown. This classic folktale tells the story of an impoverished community where everyone is afraid to share. The travellers show that it is possible, working together, to create something more than the sum of its parts.
36. _The Boat_ by Helen Ward and Ian Andrew. In a brilliant variation on the Noah's Ark story, an old man rescues animals, but dislikes and fears humans, who in turn fear him. When a flood occurs, a young boy enables his community to cross the barrier of fear and connect.
37. _We Gather Together_ By Wendy Pfeiffer. A history and narrative of harvest festivals all over the world. Emphasizes that harvesting food is always a time for celebration and joy.
38. _Nana Upstairs, Nana Downstairs_ by Tomie de Paolo. I remember my parents reading this book to me, and now I read it to my children. It resonates especially with them because until recently, their great-grandparents lived with them. Tommy loves his grandmother, who cares for his great-grandmother, who he also loves very much. This book does talk about death, and also about the obligations extended families have towards one another. Many of Paolo's other books are suitable as well - _Quilt Story_ for example.
39 _The Quilt-Maker's Gift_ Stunning fairy tale about a magical quilt maker who teaches a king to be unselfish. There are companion books of quilting patterns and techniques available (and a prequel in which the insulated young quilt-maker discoveries she cannot enjoy her privelege in a world of poverty and suffering), and this is an excellent book to introduce handwork with, as well as a beautiful story.
40. _Pumpkin Circle_ This wonderful, clever book describes the seed cycle, including the transition back to compost and saved seeds. It is exuberant and fun, and very popular in my house.
41. _The Three Questions_ by Jon Muth (based on a story by Leo Tolstoy). Nikolai wants to know how to be a good person, and he finds a variety of answers, and then discovers he has known all along. Tolstoy's short story _The Three Questions_ is excellent reading for teenagers.
43. _It Could Always Be Worse_ A classic Jewish folktale - a man who is too crowded in his small home goes to a Rabbi to ask what he should do. The Rabbi says, move your goats and chickens into your house! Of course, that only makes it worse, and the man returns, and more and more things are added to his house. Finally, the man who could not manage in his house with his wife and children is permitted to remove all the animals, and miraculously, the house is spacious and comfortable. An important message for our times.
44. _The Mitten_ by Jan Brett. Brett's astounding illustrations and clever texts are a real pleasure. Nikki wants mittens as white as snow, but his grandmother thinks he'll lose them. She knits them anyway, and one finds itself lost, a home for many silly animals. Also check out _On Noah's Ark_ which has one of the most complete visual catalogs of animal life I've ever seen in a book, and gently reminds us how important it is to preserve all that life.
45. _The Patchwork Quilt_ by Valerie Flournoy. There's a reason there are so many books on quilting in this list - it is one of the few popular ways of linking us to the handmade past. This is a particularly good book. Tanya's grandmother is making a scrap quilt, and Tanya's mother doesn't understand why this hand made quilt is so important to Grandma. Grandma makes the quilt out of the pieces of Tanya's life - her favorite old clothes, the fabric used to make her African princess outfit. When Grandmother becomes ill, Tanya helps finish the quilt. Light Christian religious content, but well worth it for non-Christians because of the strong images of extended families, and commitment to maintaining the past.
46. _Horton Hatches the Egg_ by Dr. Seuss. I bet you thought I was going to go for _The Lorax_, no? But as much as I like the old truffala-guy, I think the message of Horton is equally important. Horton is a faithful, kind and nurturing guy whose courage and generosity are rewarded in the end. And, of course, like all Dr. Seuss books, a great deal of fun to read.
47. _Let's Eat_ by Beatrice Hollyer. This book, produced by Oxfam, is a terrific introduction to the food and the culture of other places. It gently helps children recognize that not everyone has enough, but does so in the context of showing the way everyone participates in food production all over the world. Recipes are included. _Wake Up World_ is a related book that tells about the lives of children everywhere.
48. _Soil_ by Christin Ditchfield. Author of five books on natural resources including ones on oil, coal and water, Ditchfield's books are wonderful, clear-eyed introductions to science and sustainability. The book is on the complex side for younger children, but accessible and smart, and allows children to begin understanding the differences in soils and how to grow things in them.
49. _Tops and Bottoms_ by Janet Stevens. A very funny book in which a hare (who got into trouble losing a bet with a tortoise) tricks a lazy bear into "sharing" a garden with him.
50. _The Errant Knight_ by Ann Tompert. In a magical world, a noble knight sets out to serve his king, willing to fight dragons and slay giants if necessary. He does not want to be an errant knight, but one who concentrates on serving his ruler. But on his journey to his king, he keeps encountering people in need - a lost child, a church in need of rebuilding, a serf who needs freeing...the knight keeps doing good deeds until he grows old, never reaching his king. Until, one day, at the end of his life he arrives to see his king, ashamed that he never made it to the king's side to serve him. But the king raises him up and lets him know that each time he served someone in need, he also served their rulers.