Trees, Owls, and Mystery

There’s an Owl in the Shower

Written by Jean Craighead George

Illustrated by Christine Herman Merrill

Published by HarperCollins (1995)

144 pages 

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


Bright Pictures of Old Wisdom

Under the Lemon Moon 

Written by Edith Hope Fine

Illustrated by René King Moreno

Published by Lee & Low Books (1999)

On a grey day where you feel both chilled and sticky from the damp air, there could be no better remedy than to read Under the Lemon Moon by Edith Hope Fine and illustrated by René King Moreno. Warmth and sunshine pour from its colorful pages. Fine tells the story of a young girl seeking to heal her sickly lemon tree whose few fruit have been stolen. She wanders through the village, her pet chicken clucking encouragingly beside her, to ask growing advice of neighbors, friends, and her dear abuela. Her grandmother teaches her both to seek the aid of La Anciana, a wise old woman of the full moon, and to forgive the man who stole her lemons, for though what he did was wrong, he may have done so in need. What follows is a story of healing, generosity, and sharing that brings joy with each brightly painted lemon.


Although predominantly written in English, Under the Lemon Moon incorporates Spanish words that highlight important details of the story. The story does not name a particular location, though it is a place of large, bright flowers and beautifully woven blankets. Moreno’s illustrations bring this kind story a warmth even beyond its written wisdom. Soft, almost impressionistic images burst with color and detail.

Having recently spent some time discussing with a friend in teacher school about the development of ethical understanding, this book struck me as a perfect starting point for talking about ways of thinking about and responding to criminal acts. Rather than assuming that the lemon thief is a bad person, the story asks us to consider what caused him to steal and what the community can do to help him not feel driven to do so in the future while still acknowledging the sadness the young girl feels upon finding her lemons gone.

Although not an environmental book in the sense of depicting the Great Outdoors or teaching ecology, Under the Lemon Moon’s appreciation for gardening, its valuing of shared and ancient wisdom about growing things, and its sensitivity to the ways food security promotes community and justice make this an exemplary environmental justice children’s book.

Cover Image: By Marco Chiesa from Madrid, Spain (Lemon tree) [CC BY 2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

When the Water’s Gone…

Parable of the Sower

Octavia E. Butler

Published by Four Walls, Eight Windows (1993)

299 pages

Octavia Butler’s gripping 1993 sci-fi novel, Parable of the Sower, no longer feels quite far enough from reality. Set in the outskirts of LA as society collapses due to a water shortage crisis, Parable brings home the profound importance of protecting our drinking water. Although the shortage has already begun when the novel starts, it has not yet reached its peak. The crisis comes of age in tandem with the main character, Lauren Olamina, pushing her into ever more demanding and dangerous situations.

Yet, unlike many coming of age narratives, Parable of the Sower depicts maturity as developing community building skills and interdependence rather than rugged individualism. Characters must learn to trust each other and to build coalitions across social boundaries. Parable of the Sower underscores how race, class, and gender influence safety and social structures. Even more so than its topical environmental focus on water issues, this emphasis on forming and sustaining healthy communities makes this novel relevant for current discussions of environmental justice. Butler presents several different forms of community throughout the novel (an enclosed neighborhood, a company town, a spontaneous collective), allowing Lauren to process the benefits and difficulties of each. Like many sci-fi writers, Butler particularly warns against the lure of the company towns with their appeal of security, but their potential for entrapment.

Butler’s writing runs powerfully across the page. Realizing that complex topics need not be written with complex prose, Butler is a particularly excellent writer for high school or casual readers who want something stimulating, but not exhausting. Written as Lauren’s journal, the novel has a very thoughtful, well-developed voice. Although this style leads to a certain fuzziness of the peripheral characters, it allows Lauren’s personality to come through very engagingly. 

Though the novel depicts persistent, often graphic violence, it does not revel in these scenes. Weaponry proves necessary for self-defense in a country where police demand bribes but don’t bother to file reports and pyromanic drug addicts overwhelm and destroy entire towns. Butler asks her readers to question the relationships between fear-mongering and preparedness, pacifism and passivity.


The book has two rather odd details that do not seem entirely necessary to the thinking it wishes to do: Lauren is both hyperempathic and in the process of forming a religion. Each of these concepts allows for interesting discussions of what brings and holds together a group of otherwise unrelated individuals and whether or not it is possible to feel too much empathy. In a world where empathy seems undervalued and neglected, it can be easy to imagine that simply encouraging everyone to feel more would solve many of our problems. Butler questions this assumption by showing the level of paralysis and social avoidance that Lauren must battle in order to remain present in the inevitably painful world she inhabits. Although potentially interesting, this more fantastical element seems superfluous, and even distracting, to the nuanced issues at hand. The creation of a religion also feels somewhat tacked on, though it does contribute to the themes of coalition and community building that drive the novel. While these elements make for sometimes clunky moments in the text, they also provide interesting opportunities for discussion with a group.

I would love to read this novel with high schoolers, as I think that it would engage them on a variety of levels and keep the attention even of those readers prone to disengaging. Teaching this book in tandem with a non-fiction study of water privatization and scarcity issues in the American Southwest or in contrast to a more individualist bildungsroman could be particularly productive.

Image Credit: By National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Tasty Leaves

Trout Are Made of Trees

Written by April Pulley Sayre

Illustrated by Kate Endle

Published by Charlesbridge (2008)

A kindergarten teacher friend of mine recommended this vibrant non-fiction picture book about investigating a river food chain to me about a year ago. I’ve read it and passed it on several times since then. Trout are Made of Trees is not to be missed.


Two elementary aged children and their fathers explore the river and its inhabitants in entrancing cut paper illustrations reminiscent of Eric Carle’s The Hermit Crab. Starting with the counterintuitive claim made by the title, “Trout are made of trees,” the story follows the decomposition and consumption of leaves as they make their way into the stomachs of caddisflies, minnows, and trout. Perhaps my favorite part of this book is that it delights in revealing not only that trout are made of trees, but that we are too!

Unlike many non-fiction books, Trout are Made of Trees is wonderfully literary. Alliteration and onomatopoeias abound, making this a fantastic read-aloud. And, with only a sentence or two per page, it is well-suited to scientists with short attention spans. Its brevity is not an indication of simplicity, however. I learned a few new creatures (caddisflies, for one) and reveled in the lively descriptions that would offer excellent examples to young science writers.

I also appreciated that these illustrations included characters of different races, without falling into the multiracial parade of some non-fiction books where an effort to incorporate a child of every color means that there are no consistent characters. Whether or not the main characters are friends or siblings is left satisfyingly unannounced. While I would not say that this book encourages us to read the adults as partners, it doesn’t exclude the possibility.

Trout are Made of Trees would make an excellent addition to an exploratory learning unit. The illustrations encourage adventurous learning as we see the children with their bellies on the ground, closely observing every part of the trout’s food chain and life cycle. Another friend of mine also used it in a gardening class, as it can easily be extended to start discussions about other plants and food systems. At the end of the book, the author also provides a more detailed explanation of the trout life cycle, how to be a “stream hero,” and helpful links for those wanting to dig deeper. This isn’t just a school book, though. I would love to see it on home bookshelves (I have it on mine!), as it encourages families to foster curiosity for nature and talk about our part in it.

By Eric Engbretson, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service [Public domain], <a href=””>via Wikimedia Commons</a>

Voices from Mining Country


Ann Pancake

Published by Shoemaker & Hoard (2007)

360 pages

A couple weeks ago, I visited an old friend living in the UP. As we meandered our way past mile after mile Michigan’s old copper mining region, I found myself feeling the scenes from the book set in West Virginian coal country that I was reading ever more viscerally. What must it be like to live in a town that’s main source of income has simply been removed? What if that removal left the region not only without work, but with a toxic landscape and waterways?

Ann Pancake’s novel STRANGE AS THIS WEATHER HAS BEEN has been out since 2007, but I still don’t see it in bookstores as often as it deserves. It follows the life of a young family living in the hollow of Cherryboy and Yellowroot mountains. Herself a West Virginian, Pancake writes a story that couldn’t be set anywhere else. Each page attends to the sounds and sights of southern West Virginia, from the melody of the prose to the specificity of the local plants growing on the mountainside. Pancake encourages her reader to care about these hollows in all their particularity.

And caring about this land matters. The novel illustrates the poisonous effects of surface mining (especially what is often called mountain top removal mining) on the land and the community that inhabits it. Little Tommy pulls a dead fish from a stream that soon won’t even host their decaying bodies. His older brother Dane stands petrified as he listens to the dammed up and overflowing water rushing down the clear-cut side of the mountain. Their mother Lace hears worries from all over the county while working her job at the local Dairy Queen. Part of what makes STRANGE such a beautiful book is that each chapter marks a shift to another character’s perspective, letting the the novel’s events unfold through the lens of many different emotions. While Lace’s oldest child, Bant, tries to remember her grandmother’s lessons for caring about the land, 10-year-old Cory bikes around making engine noises and reveling in the mining blasts that shake his family’s home. To him, the humming four-wheeler is more alive than some tree.

The more the land is blown apart and made deadly with chemicals, the novel shows us, the harder it is to remember why we should defend or heal it. Although it clearly takes a stand against mountain top removal mining (and its frequently dubious safety and restoration practices), the novel respects the difficulty of criticizing coal mining in a country that depends on the energy it creates, the jobs it still offers, and the culture that surrounds it. Miners are not evil in this novel; they are family members and neighbors. And, yet, this culture is depicted as a deadly one. For Lace’s family, mining jobs have dried up, leaving behind only the wracking cough of Black Lung disease.

STRANGE AS THIS WEATHER HAS BEEN is not an uplifting book, but neither is it apocalyptic. People care. I find Pancake’s characters both likable and familiar. They are people whose lives don’t go much as they’d intended them to do, but they make do anyway. Pancake writes in such a way that you can hear her characters voices, be they thinking to themselves or telling stories. Hers is not the slow, mesmerizing prose of many nature writers, but instead a vivid rendering that leaves me thinking about her characters for days, even weeks. I walked along an ATV track with my friends in Hancock, MI and found myself wondering what Cory would have thought of it. Not enough jumps, probably. Too many people walking around, getting themselves in the way.


I’ve not yet taught this novel, though I intend to when I have the chance. I think that Pancake brings together the issues, history, and culture of a place compellingly and that this novel would be approachable to both older teens and adults. It would make a fantastic component in a unit on Appalachia, mining history, or environmental justice, particularly as it incorporates historic events from Logan County, WV such as the Buffalo Creek flood disaster of 1972 or the early 20th century Battle of Blair Mountain. Pancake manages to make a strong case against Mountain Top Removal mining without falling into the preachiness that plagues a lot of environmental writing. She simply helps you remember that you care.

Image Credit: Mountaintop removal mine in Pike County, Kentucky just off U.S. 23. Photo by Matt Wasson, Appalachian Voices. April 19th, 2010. [CC BY 2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons