When welcoming someone new to the world—and the world of books—give a children’s book that shares something distinct about you, your sense of place, your interests, your values.
For me that’s usually:
- Maine (see A Maine Sense of Place: Great First Books for Little Kids), and
- nature and the outdoors.
These are 12 of my favorite outdoor and nature board and picture books and authors to share with the youngest readers and readers-to-be.
by Jane Yolen, illustrated by John Schoenherr
If I could give all kids just one picture book, it would be Jane Yolen’s Owl Moon. This gentle, yet adventurous, story follows a little girl as she goes owling for the first time with her father late one winter night, long past bedtime.
It’s a journey of exploration and bravery on a child’s level. Will they find an owl? When you go owling, sometimes there’s an owl and sometimes there isn’t.
For me, Owl Moon is everything a children’s book should be: poetic words that are best read aloud, a loving, positive (but not boring or maudlin) story, and lovely illustrations (John Schoenherr’s work earned Owl Moon the Caldecott Medal in 1988).
I love this book. Read it aloud, even if you don’t have a kid to act as audience.
Polar Bear Night
by Lauren Thompson, illustrated by Stephen Savage
Polar Bear Night is a great first read about safe and gentle exploration outdoors, though not as well known as many other children’s books.
On a keen and cold night, a polar bear cub wakes and leaves her “warm, soft mother so deep asleep.” As she walks and watches, the cub sees other Arctic animals sleeping and experiences star-lit wonder, before returning home to her mother bear’s soft, warm fur and love.
We were lucky to discover Polar Bear Night nearly a decade ago thanks to the Maine Reads program, which gave us a copy at my son’s well child checkup. The book is available in hardcover and boardbook editions, depending on how sturdy of a book you want.
The Snowy Day
by Ezra Jack Keats
Ah, waking up to a snowy day, what is more exciting for a kid (and many of us adults)?
I love The Snowy Day for a number of reasons. First, it’s about the excitement and wonder of a brilliant, deep, deep snowfall. Snow-covered trees, great big tall heaping mountains of snow, new paths—it’s a landscape transformed.
I also love that Ezra Jack Keats brings the thrill of a snowstorm—climbing and sliding huge snowbanks, making snowmen and snow angels—to an urban setting. Natural wonder and exploration needn’t be limited to Arctic wilderness or rural landscapes.
The 50th anniversary edition of The Snowy Day is worth getting for the eight additional pages about Keats’ work and inspiration. For 22 years, Keats saved a Life magazine photograph of a little African-American boy, but was never asked to illustrate a black child for a children’s book. So he eventually wrote The Snowy Day, developed a collage style to illustrate it, and won the Caldecott Medal in 1963.
Noticed any trends in the books I featured above? If you’d like to explore some seasons and terrain besides winter and snow, consider the prolific work of naturalist Jim Arnosky. Arnosky has written and illustrated 86 science and nature books, plus illustrated 46 more for various authors.
For the youngest readers, and listeners, check out his Every Autumn Comes the Bear, Otters Under Water, and Rabbits & Raindrops. All are informative, accurate, and beautifully illustrated, without overt animal cutesiness.
Older kids will appreciate works like Arnosky’s All About animal series, The Brook Book field guide for exploring the smallest streams, and Wild Tracks.
Other Outdoor Book Contenders
Need even more outdoorsy books for a young child’s library or to give as a gift? Here are some more board and picture books for young naturalists and outdoorsy kids:
- A Camping Spree with Mr. Magee and Learning to Ski with Mr. Magee by Chris Van Dusen. Tackle some silly camping and skiing adventures with Mr. Magee and his little dog Dee in these two books. Chris Van Dusen is a favorite author around here, and not just because he lives in Maine. He’s just plain fun.
- Henry Hikes to Fitchburg by D.B. Johnson is inspired by Henry David Thoreau and a passage in Walden about travelling and life choices. Of Johnson’s Henry the bear series, this one is my favorite.
- Hush Little Baby by Syliva Long is a boardbook rendition of the classic song, focusing instead on nature (“Mama’s going to show you a hummingbird”), family, and love instead of things to buy.
- Mossy by Jan Brett is as impressively beautifully and detailed as any of Brett’s other works. This one concerns a unique turtle with her own garden on her back, and the question of where we each belong.
- One-Dog Canoe by Mary Casanova with pictures by Ard Hoyt is a fun, rollicking canoe adventure that begins with a girl and her dog setting off one morning in her little red canoe. She proceeds to take on a canoe-full of animals.
- Over and Under the Snow by Kate Messner and art by Christopher Silas Neal is yet another lovely, snow-filled book. It’s informative about the animals over and under in winter.
- Stella and Roy Go Camping by Ashley Wolff tags along with a brother and sister backpacking to Lone Pine Lake with their mom, and shares the eagerness to find and identify animal tracks along the way.