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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Exploring Children's Nature Books, With Lynne Cherry

Air Date: Week of

If you want the kids in your life to explore and experience nature firsthand, entice them with a story book, says author Lynne Cherry, who has written and illustrated 30 children’s books. Her bestseller "The Great Kapok Tree" takes place in the Amazon forest, one of her favorite settings. It's a tale of how animals and a small boy gently persuade a logger to let a tree remain in their rain forest. Lynne Cherry joined Steve Curwood in the studio. Ms. Cherry is Director of the Center for Children’s Environmental Literature and is currently Artist in Residence at the Smithsonian Institution. Her most recent book, co-authored with ethnobotanist Mark Plotkin, is called "The Shaman’s Apprentice: A Tale of the Amazon Rain Forest.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Reading aloud at bedtime offers a child an experience that even the best show on television can't match. So, if you want the kids in your life to explore and experience nature first- hand, entice them with a storybook, says author Lynn Cherry, who has written and illustrated 30 children's books. Her bestseller, The Great Kapok Tree, takes place in the Amazon, one of her favorite settings. It's the tale of how animals and a small boy gently and surreptitiously persuade a logger to let a tree stand in the rainforest. Here's an excerpt.

(Tropical bird calls)

CURWOOD (reading): A troop of monkeys scamper down from the canopy of the Kapok tree. They chatter to the sleeping man. "Senhor, we have seen the says of man. You chop down one tree and then come back for another and another. The roots of these great trees will wither and die, And there will be nothing left to hold the earth in place. When the heavy rains come, the soil will be washed away, And the forest will become a desert."

Lynn Cherry joins us now in our studio. Welcome, Lynn.

CHERRY: Hi. Nice to be here.

CURWOOD: Tell me, who or what were your main influences in deciding to become a children's book illustrator and an environmental educator?

CHERRY: I think my main influence was my own personal experience. Because when I was a kid, I had a woods behind the house that I really loved, And I was bonded with. And I used to go and sit silently. If you sit really quietly, the animals come out and you get to see them up close. So I knew where everything lived, what tree, what hole, under what rock. And I came home one day. I was 8 years old. And they were bulldozing it. It was like, it was as if I had come home and they were bulldozing my own house. It was very traumatic for me. And so that was, I think, the formative experience, just watching my world be destroyed.

CURWOOD: There are a lot of different children's book writers and illustrators, but of course probably one of my most favorite is Dr. Seuss. I'm wondering if you were influenced by him. Dr. Seuss really seems to have an environmental message. Take a book like The Lorax, for example.

CHERRY: Yeah. Dr. Seuss was before his time. And his book The Lorax is about someone coming in, destroying a natural environment, and building a factory, creating Sneeds, which are things that everyone needs but they're really something that no one needs. His books are brilliant. They're fun and they're brilliant. I was greatly inspired by his books. In fact, I had a correspondence with him for many years.

CURWOOD: Uh huh.

CHERRY: And some of my most cherished possessions are these letters from him.

CURWOOD: Who do you typically write for when you're writing a kid's book?

CHERRY: I'm writing for kids but I'm also writing for the parents. And I always have, but then a couple years ago a study came out by the League of Conservation Voters. And they found that most people were getting their environmental information from educational materials that their kids brought home from school. And then I was absolutely convinced that what I was doing was really important. In fact, in A River Ran Wild, that book was written for children but it's used in junior high schools, high schools, even in colleges. And there's so much that an adult can get out of that book.

CURWOOD: Now, you would write ostensibly, then, for children of what age?

CHERRY: I'd say between 6 and 12, but you know, kids up to 100 years old are going to like the books.

CURWOOD: (Laughs) Of course. But why do you figure you're aiming at 6 to 12? This is your target. Why did you pick that as your target?

CHERRY: Because kids from 6 to 12 are developmentally mature enough that they can understand some of these concepts. That they can sort of separate them from themselves. And they can make a difference in the world. My books are -- I think they stand alone as far as stories, but they also inspire action.

CURWOOD: Do you get letters from kids telling you that your books have inspired them?

CHERRY: I get hundreds of letters. And they're not just about being inspired. They're also letters that teach me. Like, for instance, after I wrote The Great Kapok Tree, I got a letter from a child who said, "Well, you know, we have a rainforest right here in this country, up where I live in the Northern Pacific. It's the Ancient Forest." Believe it or not, I didn't know about the Ancient Forest back then. And I went to Oregon and Washington, And I saw these forests that were just staggeringly beautiful and thousands of years old. So that I was inspired to do a book about these forests called The Dragon and The Unicorn. And again, after The Great Kapok Tree, another child wrote and said, "How can you say you care about trees, when your books are destroying all these trees? Your books aren't on recycled paper." And I had been trying to get my publishers to publish my books on recycled or chlorine-free paper. And they'd resisted. But it was that letter that gave me the impetus to bring together 200 authors and illustrators of children's books and the publishers around the table with a pulp and paper expert from Greenpeace. And we told them where they could get the recycled paper, how much it was, here's a phone number of the distributors. Here's the quality. And it changed the industry overnight, where Harcourt is now publishing our books on recycled or chlorine-free paper. So, you know, one letter from a kid can make a big difference.

CURWOOD: Can you give me an example of how your readers have gone out and gotten involved themselves, gone out to make changes for the environment?

CHERRY: There were some kids in Michigan. And there was a forest, an old growth forest, that was going to be cut. And they were upset about this. They asked their teacher what can they do? So their teacher said, "Well, let's go talk to the developer, see if the developer will sell it to us or give it to us." The developer said he couldn't give it to them, but that he would sell it to them for $100,000. Well, these kids wrote letters to the newspaper. They did public speaking. They went to the other schools. They got these other schools involved. They motivated this whole community. The businesses gave them large chunks of money. And then they got on the radio. Then they got on television. And these checks started pouring in, And they bought this forest. In Coral Springs, Florida, a group called Save What's Left, kids, collected 3,500 signatures for a referendum so that some of the tax dollars could be used to purchase open land. Because they saw all the open land in their community just being paved over. More people turned out for this vote in Coral Springs than ever before in an election, And overwhelmingly voted for, there was a bond issue to raise the funds. And when kids get involved, suddenly the blinders fall off of their parents and they think, "Where are our priorities?"

CURWOOD: There's been a backlash against environmental education.

CHERRY: Mm hm.

CURWOOD: Some people say, "Ach, kids are being brainwashed with the stuff, being scared." How do you respond to that?

CHERRY: I think the problem is with the being scared part of it. And I think what's happened is that environmental education has not taken into account that children have to be a certain age before they're taught certain things. And you can't really tell a child in second grade about global warming. They're not going to have the developmental ability to really process it and do anything about it. They're just going to get scared. And so, with my books, I emphasize that up until grade 3 it's better to teach as little as possible about, you know, the problems of the world, And focus instead on the wonders of nature. Take kids outside. Work with the biologist. Learn about the ecosystem behind your school. Plan a butterfly garden. Build bat houses. Teach kids how to use binoculars. Look through a magnifying glass. I mean, there's this incredible world of nature out there. And then, as they get older, you know, fourth, fifth, sixth grade, then you can tell kids about CO2, global warming. But at that point, they're able to possibly do something about it.

CURWOOD: Lynn Cherry is director of the Center for Children's Environmental Literature, And is currently Artist in Residence at the Smithsonian Institution. Her most recent book, coauthored with ethnobotanist Mark Plotkin, is called The Shaman's Apprentice: A Tale of the Amazon Rainforest. Lynn, thanks for joining us.

CHERRY: Thanks for having me, Steve.



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