How children’s stories can cultivate connection to nature, and why I look wistfully out of windows
I’ve spent most spare moments I’ve had during the recent time blob staring out of windows.
Between online meetings, I look out the front window, where I catch glimpses of phone-gazing dog walkers, neighbours tending to lawns, or squirrels sketching pine-needled blueprints for their upcoming birdseed heist.
Rarely, I glance out a side window, but there isn’t much to see except the wall of our neighbour’s house. If my neighbour happens to appear there, I will quickly duck away because I am rather afraid of people.
Once or twice I’ve tried to look out our daughters’ bedroom windows, but I have been promptly asked to stop loitering and move along.
Most often, I stare out our back window, through the sliding glass door that opens up to our garden. From this window, I sip a twice-forgotten, thrice-microwaved coffee, and look at the trees my wife and I planted after moving into this house, about one and a half time blobs ago.
The back window coaxes me outside and invites me to pace around our backyard and breathe the air of the world.
There’s a small grove of birch trees, a hedgerow of cedar, a sugar maple, dogwood, and a fledgling white pine, all eagerly shooting new growth to the sky. Around them are flowers: echinacea, liatris, daisies, milkweed, anemone, astilbe, sage, lavender, and flox. Dandelions muscle through uncut grass and bumblebees hover over white puffs of flowering clover. All around me, life is bursting, unfazed by the languishing gloom of the pandemic.
I’m telling you this because the windows in our house and the relative wildness on the other side of them have kept the creative part of my brain wick. Somewhere, beneath the dieback, there is still green.
Writers are obligated to longingly search for inspiration somewhere, and during the course of the most recent time blob, somewhere became nowhere. Or I suppose for me, it became three places: walks, grocery store aisles, and windows.
Neighbourhood walks and family hikes in local conservation areas have done well to soothe and restore. Yet it’s staring through windows where I do my best mindwandering. In my experience, wandering minds sometimes find their way into ideas, and rarely, these ideas will stumble into stories.
It’s been widely acknowledged by smarter thinkers than me that stories can also act as windows.
Similar to our backyard window, stories coax us into ways of thinking that can change how we understand and act in the world. They are windows into worldviews, perspectives, struggles, hard truths, and ways of knowing that open up pathways to genuine empathy and love.
The stories we tell are crucial for fostering human-to-human empathy, and they also plant seeds for genuine human-to-nature empathy. As we must do for one another, we need to practice empathy for the living world, a love for ecology, a sense of belonging, and a gratitude for the ecological gifts that sustain us. Of course both concepts are inherently interwoven – human rights and environmental rights – so the more empathetic windows you can put in your house, the better.
Nowadays, when screens permeate so much of young people’s existence (uncool dad shakes fist), children need windows that lead them toward the wonders of nature and light up those ancient neural pathways that make us human. I believe that instilling a love of nature at a young age can fundamentally change how we treat the world around us.
Luckily, there is no shortage of children’s books conceived and written on this part of the planet that provide windows into meaningful human-environmental connection. Below is a small but mighty list of a few of my own favourites (in alphabetical order):
- I Talk Like a River, by Jordan Scott, Illustrated by Sydney Smith, published by Neal Porter Books
- On The Trapline, by David A. Robertson, Illustrated by Julie Flett, published by Tundra Books.
- Me, Toma and the Concrete Garden, by Andrew Larsen, Illustrated by Anne Villeneuve, published by Kids Can Press
- The Snow Knows, by Jennifer McGrath, illustrated by Josée Bissailon, published by Nimbus Publishing
- The Specific Ocean, by Kyo Maclear, illustrated by Katty Maury, published by Kids Can Press
- Tokyo Digs a Garden, written by Jon-Erik Lappano and Illustrated by Kellen Hatanaka, published by Groundwood Books
- When Emily Was Small, written and illustrated by Lauren Soloy, published by Tundra Books
If you haven’t already, I hope you’ll read and share these stories with the young ones in your life.
For me, I hope that when this is all over and the time blob stretches back into something more uniform, I will continue to look out of windows for creative inspiration.
To my neighbours and passers-by: I realize I might look like an apparition behind half-drawn curtains, staring hauntingly into the streets, and for that, I am so sorry. I didn’t mean to startle you.
Please know that I’m doing it for the trees.
The views expressed by Open Book columnists are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.
Jon-Erik Lappano is a person who stays up too late working on things, including writing books for children. His debut picture book, Tokyo Digs a Garden, illustrated by Kellen Hatanaka, won the Governor General's Literary Award and was a finalist for the TD Canadian Children's Literature Award. His second book, Maggie's Treasure, was inspired by Jon-Erik's young daughters and has received wide critical acclaim. Jon-Erik lives in Stratford, Ontario, with his family and a growing assortment of pets.