How Green

Environmentalism Latest Niche in Children's Books

PORTLAND, Ore. -- Giggles the Green Bean has a problem. He's a happy little seed, planted in some good ground, but he sprouts into a world where the air stinks, the sky is gray and the trees are gasping.

What the ...? he says, or something like it, except age-appropriate.

And so begins the newly published adventure, told by Portland author Lauren Davis, of "Giggles the Green Bean Turns Stinkytown Into Greentown." Guided by his bean grandmother and by a Wise Old Cabbage, Giggles learns five environmentally friendly lessons and spreads the word to others. Thus the town transforms from Stinky to Green.

It's another turn at instilling environmental sensibilities in youngsters who may not know climate change from diaper change. But that's OK, isn't it? Or should we be concerned about heavy-handed green-washing? After all, some of today's environmentalists were no doubt hauled around in their parents' big cars, ate fast food and wasted electricity. They heard fairy tales in which wolves got slaughtered just for being wolves, trees and treasure were there for the taking and the bigger the machine, the better.

They recovered just fine. Do today's kids really need a primer on sustainability?

Nothing wrong with it, experts say. American kids spend less time camping, hiking and visiting national parks than their parents did, and spend more time watching TV, staring at a computer screen or thumbing a video game controller. If awareness of nature comes first from a book, who's to complain?

"We use children's literature broadly to instill values in children -- to be nice to each other," says Beth Green, president of NPC Research in Portland and an early childhood education specialist. "I think the message resonates very easily with children. They have a natural affinity for nature, and taking care of things that are alive."

The federal Environmental Protection Agency's Web site for children includes the Acid Rain Kids Site and the "Tale of Lucy Lake," where the plants and animals aren't feeling well.

In the online story, Frannie Frog, Sammy Spruce and Lucy Lake talk about the problem. They can't figure it out. Just then, two human hikers appear, and the creatures of the forest tell them they're hungry, weak and tired.

"Can you help us?" they ask. The hikers nod their heads. "Yes," one hiker says. "I think I know what the problem is. It's acid rain."

Then there's Bobbie Bigfoot, the online creation of Earth Day Network and Redefining Progress, the latter being an Oakland, Calif., think tank dedicated to a sustainable economy, healthy environment and a just society.

Bobbie Bigfoot -- again with the alliteration -- wears his baseball cap backward, has green hair and invites kids to "Help me find out how big my Ecological Footprint is."

Closer to home, the Oregon Community Foundation, a philanthropic organization that funds educational programs, holds that every fifth- and sixth-grader in Oregon should attend an overnight outdoor school "that engages the senses and employs recognized best practices. By eighth grade, the foundation says on its Web site, all students should visit a wastewater treatment plant, a water source and a landfill. Katie Anderson, youth services consultant with the Oregon State Library, suggests guidelines for parents when introducing preschoolers to complex themes such as environmental problems:

Parents should look for books that include funny characters in silly situations, portray real-life experiences or feelings, and involve families, friends, school or relationships.

When judging a book's content, consider how it is designed, what research its premise is based on and how and what it teaches.

Another question: Does the book or Web site address issues that may upset your child, or answer questions in a way that will help her gain understanding or relieve anxieties? The Oregon Legislature appointed a task force to develop an "environmental literacy" plan for the state's kids this year, part of a national "No Child Left Inside" initiative.

Many schools already incorporate environmental activities into daily lessons. Kindergartners commonly start beans or flowers in sunny window sills. Recently, fourth-graders from Llewellyn Elementary in Southeast Portland planted native Oregon grape and chokeberry and took water samples at Oaks Bottom Wildlife Refuge.

For her part, author Davis was inspired to write about Giggles the Green Bean while helping out on her brother's Web site,, which compiles lists of environmentally friendly businesses and provides tips and links about green practices.

Writing a newsletter for her brother and interacting with sustainability groups, Davis realized there wasn't much information out there for children. Much of it was "stiff and technical," sounding like an engineer addressing a class of mystified first-graders.

"I woke up with the story in my head," she says. "Giggles the Green Bean. I wrote the story in 45 minutes."

It was important, she says, to show that Giggles is not overwhelmed by the problems he discovered. The Wise Old Cabbage tells Giggles to do five important things: Recycle, use less water, use less paper, save energy and eat healthfully.

The story thus provides a "how-to" element, rather than just a vague call for awareness, Davis says.

The catch is that Giggles must promise to share what he learns with everyone in Stinkytown. Davis says she couldn't afford to have the book printed on recycled paper or using soy-based inks. To make up for that, she's donating some of the proceeds to the U.S. Forest Service's Plant-A-Tree program.

"I'm not a poster child for being green, but I do what I can," Davis says.

Her book and Web site offer Giggles accessories: green bean seeds and an "eco-friendly" pot to grow them in, stickers, a CD, coloring pages and games. More Giggles books are on the way.