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Mixed Media | big ideas and oddball interpretations
November/December 2008

Kid Lit | Earth Beat

Kid Lit
For the holidays, books that open children's eyes to the natural world

The rumble of coal and lumber trucks dominates in Hyden, an eastern Kentucky town, and is underscored by the occasional peal of church bells, banjos, and fiddles. I was there this summer "story collecting" as part of the Appalachia Service Project with my daughter, Lucy, a photographer whose pictures captured a world of children living deep in the hollows (or "hollers"). The project's volunteers spend a week winterizing homes still heated by coal and woodstoves. In one house I met Carbide, a man who manages to eke out a living by picking ginseng and catching rattlesnakes to sell to snake handlers.

At the Leslie County Public Library, I led a children's writing workshop run by two sisters, Leona and Bess, as part of the nationwide Catch the Reading Bug program. The kids' appetites for reading and writing were insatiable and got me thinking about the current crop of books for young readers with themes of changing the world and caring for the earth. With luck, these worthwhile titles will find their way to Hyden and beyond.

The venerable nine-volume Adventures of Riley (Eaglemont Publishers, recently republished by Scholastic), by Amanda Lumry, is a terrific series of illustrated books that includes Polar Bear Puzzle, an introduction to climate change. In each installment, nine-year-old Riley Mitchell meets such creatures as salmon, tigers, pandas, or penguins and returns to his classroom to share the lessons he has learned.

The Young Birder's Guide to Birds of Eastern North America (Houghton Mifflin), by Bill Thompson, editor of Bird Watcher's Digest, is an excellent reference book that gives kids ages 8 through 12 a hands-on approach to the fun and excitement of birdwatching. Thompson's method: He consulted his daughter and her classmates for advice. National Geographic's photo-book series Face to Face features encounters with ten animals, including wolves, lions, whales, and frogs. My nine-year-old, who wants to help "wild, wild, wild" animals, is riveted by the series' "up close" perspective.

With chapters like "Putting the Trash Can on a Diet" and "Let's Get On Our Bikes," 50 Ways to Save the Earth (Abrams Books for Young Readers), by Anne Jankéliowitch, belongs in every grade school classroom. The book includes stunning photography by Philippe Bourseiller (author of 365 Ways to Save the Earth) and introduces kids to the basics of keeping the planet healthy. Autumn Winifred Oliver Does Things Different (Delacorte Books for Young Readers), by Kristin O'Donnell Tubb, introduces a headstrong girl who discovers, among other things, an ingenious method of thwarting a stinky flock of geese from eating the family garden. Luka, the 13-year-old hero of Bringing the Boy Home (HarperCollins), by N. A. Nelson, longs to return to the Amazon's Takunami tribe in a journey of self-discovery and courage. Samantha Hansen Has Rocks in Her Head (Abrams), by Nancy Viau, is a tale of a fourth-grader with a white-hot temper and a love of rocks and science.

Readers eight years old and younger will love Planting the Trees of Kenya (Farrar, Straus and Giroux Books for Young Readers), by Claire A. Nivola, which tells the story of Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangari Maathai. The beautifully written and illustrated book brings to life Maathai's mission to save Kenya by teaching its women to plant trees one at a time.

Pale Male: Citizen Hawk of New York City (Knopf Books for Young Readers), by Janet Schulman, and Eggs (Holiday House), by Marilyn Singer, are two captivating stories for the youngest readers about life's majesty. Pale Male tells the true story of two red-tailed hawks living on Manhattan's Upper West Side and how their wealthy neighbors wanted them evicted, while Eggs explains every kind of egg imaginable. In fact, there's probably a book that will appeal to every youngster's finely focused obsession this holiday season, including Tadpole Rex (Harcourt Children's Books), by Kurt Cyrus, for frog lovers; Ice Bears (Henry Holt Books for Young Readers), by Brenda Z. Guiberson, for polar bear trackers; and Monarch and Milkweed (Atheneum), by Helen Frost, for butterfly fanatics.

Kerry Madden is the author of the Maggie Valley trilogy (Gentle's Holler, Louisiana's Song, and Jessie's Mountain; Viking Children's Books), a series of novels for middle school readers set in the Great Smoky Mountains.

Earth Beat
Writing for mammon's magazine

Can the business magazine best known for its adulatory rankings of top U.S. companies give the environment its due? That's largely up to Marc Gunther, senior writer for Fortune, whose beat is business's impact on society, with a focus on the environment. Gunther also writes a weekly column for the Web site CNNMoney and a blog ( where he vents about issues that are a little too hot for a publication devoted to power and wealth.

How did you end up covering the environment?
In 2001 I wrote a cover story for Fortune called "God and Business" on the values of corporate America. When I wrote a cover story in 2006 on the greening of Wal-Mart, the editors figured there seemed to be enough going on around the environment for me to focus on it.

Wal-Mart tops the Fortune 500 list.
What caught the editors' attention were changes at both Wal-Mart and GE. Wal-Mart does business with everyone, so when it says it's going to take sustainability seriously, then everyone has to begin thinking about the issue. GE is known for its management and leadership. So when CEO Jeff Immelt started talking about GE's "Ecomagination" initiative, it got the attention of the business world.

Is Ecomagination as serious as its PR campaign?
I don't think so. GE has packaged some things it was doing anyway: compact fluorescent lightbulbs, energy-efficient aircraft engines, "clean coal" technology. Wal-Mart has thought hard about what sustainability means. The problem is that Wal-Mart's fundamental business model is unsustainable: It's based on big-box stores and shipping stuff all around the world.

How do you negotiate corporate communications teams devoted to positive spin?
The challenge is to be skeptical enough about corporate hype and knowledgeable enough to know what questions to ask. Proctor & Gamble talks about reducing greenhouse-gas emissions "per unit of production"--not in total--because the company has to grow. But the environment doesn't care if Proctor & Gamble grows. You have to reduce emissions on an absolute level. A year ago I might not have understood that distinction.

What makes a company's green gloss disappear?
Consumption is the elephant in the room. McDonald's takes its environmental impact seriously. It worked with Greenpeace and Cargill on a moratorium on Amazon soy because of tropical deforestation. But its goal is to sell as many hamburgers as possible. Frankly, meat is bad for the environment. How do you address that?

Are carbon-offset schemes a solution or a scam?
Companies should only turn to offsets after they've done everything they can to reduce their footprint. If offsets become a substitute for changing policies, they're not helpful.

What green business issues are most enticing today?
Changes in the auto industry. GM is developing a plug-in hybrid car. Nissan is working to build an electric-car infrastructure. If we can get Americans off gasoline, it'll be a great win for the environment.

Why didn't industry foresee the latest gas crisis?
Business is too short-term. If you care about the environment, you have to think long-term. Wal-Mart is buying more fish from certified fisheries because it doesn't want to run out of fish to sell. The argument comes down to "You can't have a healthy business in a dying environment."

What's your environmental vice?
I bought a new car. My carbon footprint might have been less had I bought a used car. —interview by Reed McManus

Book photos by Lori Eanes/courtesy of Stacey's Bookstore & Alexander Book Co.; used with permission.
"Earth Beat" photo by Maryanne Russell; used with permission.

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