Written by Jean Craighead George
Illustrated by Christine Herman Merrill
Published by HarperCollins (1995)
Many children’s novels steer clear of the social justice issues that often coincide with environmental destruction. Jean Craighead George’s novel, however, begins with the frustration of an Oregon Coast logging family during the major upheaval of the spotted owl protests of the early 1990s. George makes immediately clear the bitter truth that those people most harmed by environmentally destructive jobs are often those most in need of the work. Swooping from tense threats of violence and confrontations with the law to the warm laughter inspired by a fluffy owlet, There’s an Owl in the Shower follows the changing perspectives of young Borden and his family regarding the protection of the spotted owl and the old-growth Douglas forest that provides its habitat.
The main character of this novel, Borden, is surprisingly unlikeable, but also surprisingly peripheral. A large portion of the story is devoted to the shifting mentality of his father Leon, a logger who has been laid off due to the spotted owl protection measures. This emphasis on an adult character feels unusual for a book aimed at middle grade readers, yet remains relatable. George’s characters are memorable, if frequently allegorical (the environmentalist, the judge, the mom). Some of the most interesting discussions my reading group of 2nd graders had about the novel dealt with the fact that the main characters are not initially lovable. Instead of being another Charlotte’s Web focusing on the sweet interactions Wilbur and Fern, we are left biking about town with a boy who would be buddies with Fern’s frog-tormenting older brother Avery. Borden’s environmentalist older sister only steps in to provide exposition. Immediately opposed to the Borden’s anti-spotted owl position, my students considered how to be persuasive to people whose values did not match their own. How could they interact with Borden in a way that would make him want to save the spotted owls instead of shoot them?
In many ways, the owl family, particularly young Bardy and his father Enrique, are the novel’s most compelling characters. Entire chapters devoted to the spotted owl family that parallels Borden’s own depict these animals as more than birds or pets, but as beings with their own social structure, relationships, and livelihood. Although humans are the main decision-makers in this story, George makes very clear the fact that they are not the only stake-holders. She reminds her readers to consider this story from an other-than-human-centric perspective on the issue.
The novel’s prose is simple, occasionally to the point of being outright repetitive. One of my second grade readers remarked that maybe the author shouldn’t just write “he said” with every quotation. Yet, the novel’s storyline has many satisfying twists and troubles for an imaginative young mind. Students will be pulled into both the environmental mysteries and the legal drama that the novel sets up early and keeps alive throughout. Because of these unexplained problems, There’s an Owl in the Shower is particularly good for encouraging critical thinking about environmental issues. It asks students to research and think about, for example, why logging might hurt salmon. Determined to answer this question, my students took to the board to draw diagrams of the clearcut hillside. They quested through non-fiction books for clues that might help them to solve the dead fish conundrum. When they figured it out, they couldn’t have been more satisfied. Because the novel teaches this problem-solving mentality so engagingly, There’s an Owl in the Shower would be a great book to start various environmental units that seek to get students wondering about the connections among ecosystem elements.
There’s an Owl in the Shower thinks about the long-term impacts of profit-driven ventures such as logging on the commons. We see how forests and waterways, and thus other industries that depend on these shared resources (e.g. fishing), are hurt by clear-cutting. George’s novel provides great fodder for discussing long- versus short-term profits in terms of a community’s well-being (jobs, health, etc.) and environmental sustainability. For all its simplicity, there is a soulfulness to this novel geared at 3-5th grade readers. George asks us to dig into what we care about and why and, as adult readers, to notice along with Leon how the world has changed and to challenge those changes that are not, in fact, for the better.
Feature Image from Wikimedia Commons “A Spotted Owl flies down to catch a mouse” NPS photo by Emily Brouwer