Picture books about observation and exploration of nature

I like the phrase ‘unplugged exploration’ found in a Kirkus Review written about the first book in this list, On A Magical Do-Nothing Day by Beatrice Alemagna. It could also be a list about the ‘Nourishment of Nature and the Art of Solitude in the Age of Screens’ or indeed ‘Self-discovery Against the Odds of Culture’ both taken from Brainpickings review of the same book.

‘Unplugged Exploration’ Booklist

On A Magical Do-Nothing Day by Beatrice Alemagne
Belonging by Jeannie Baker

Flashlight by Lizi Boyd

Hello! Hello! by Matthew Cordell

The Street Beneath My Feet by Charlotte Guillain and Yuval Zommer

A Ruined House by Mick Manning

Ten Tiny Things by Meg McKinlay and Kyle Hughes-Odgers

Over and Under the Snow by Kate Messner and Christopher Silas Neal

Up in the Garden and Down in the Dirt by Kate Messner and Christopher Silas Neal

When Dad Showed Me the Universe by Ulf Stark and Eva Erikkson

Owl Moon by Jane Yolen and John Schoenherr

On A Magical Do-Nothing Day by Beatrice Alemagna (Translated from the French Un Grand Jour de Rien by Jill Davis)

A rainy day, a busy mum and a confiscated computer game force our little protagonist (you can decide the gender, some reviewers say girl and some say boy) to leave the house and venture outside.

When the computer game falls into the pond, our little one is bereft. Until four huge snails appear and reveal an earthy magic.

I reached out and touched their antennae – the were as soft as jelly. It made me smile.

Enticed into following a path of mushrooms (their damp smell conjures up images of a ‘cave of treasures’) our little one knows that ‘something special was close by’. Hands squelch into mud feeling ‘a thousand seeds and pellets, kernels, grains, roots and berries.’

An underground world full of treasures that I could feel!

From apprehension to enthusiasm, from a world framed by a computer screen to a world that seems ‘as if it had just been created right in front of me’, this story is a joyful exploration of the simplicity of putting on a waterproof jacket and just having fun outside.

Belonging by Jeannie Baker

A window looks out onto a garden and across into the streets beyond. As each page is turned, the reader is invited into this changing landscape as year by year the garden becomes greener and the neighbourhood is regenerated.

The reader is the explorer and must find the small changes that improve the area as the years pass. Can you spot the graffiti, the wreckers cars, the robbery?

What about the mum planting flowers in the back garden and the guerilla gardeners out on the street?

What is it that makes a difference? Can planting a few trees really change an area? Can it really feel more like home and a place to grow and raise your own child?

Often people think they own the land – that it belongs to them as a thing, a possession. But, at the same time, we depend completely on the land to feed us and support us and inspire us. And so we can see that it is the other was around: we belong to the land.

Jeannie Baker

Wonderful Jeannie Baker. You must get all of her books if you can. Belonging won The Australian Wildnerness Society Award in 2005 and it is the companion book to Window.

Flashlight by Lizi Boyd

The dark isn’t scary. It is full of wildlife like owls and skunks and foxes. You just need to shine your torch and take a look.

There is so much nocturnal life! Mice scurry in the undergrowth, strawberries are red and juicy on the ground, an owl keeps sentry from the tree. With a torch you can see so many things and if you keep looking and and focus on the die cuts you can also see so much more: flowers and leaves, rocks and rabbits and a luminous green moth that flutters from page to page.

Lizi Boyd described how she got the idea and the process of making Flashlight on the blog Picturebook Makers. I love her sketches and her reveal that for a wordless picture book there is a lot of noise! Can you imagine the scurrying and fluttering and squeaking and crunching and so many other sounds that the forest makes at night?

Flashlight won the Bologna Ragazzi Award in 2015.

The Carpenter by Bruna Barros

Another wordless picture book. Very simple but effective illustrations follow a little boy who can create all sorts of adventures with Dad’s carpenter meter. I have a review here.

The Street Beneath My Feet by Charlotte Guillain and Yuval Zommer

The concertina, fold out pages invite young explorers to take a peak at what is underneath their feet.

Follow the water pipes and electricity cables, the centipedes and the earthworms to the very centre of the earth.

Underground rivers, granite and coal, caves filled with stalagmites and stalactites, skeletons, fossils there is so much to discover.

This is a great book to invite students to pick their own topic to research. The only problem might be that there are so many interesting things to discover that picking only one might be a problem…

A Ruined House by Mick Manning

This ruin has been a haven for wild plants and creatures ever since its people left it.

I wasn’t sure if I should include this book as it is currently out of print. But, I love the concept so much and it is so useful in the classroom. It also led me to other books in the series which Candlewick Press still publish. There are lots of great titles.

This book invites the reader to explore an old house that has ‘gone to rack and ruin’. First of all you have to find it, walking across ‘boggy fields’ and climbing a fence into the old garden. Wild plants have taken over: lichens and foxgloves love to grow in the wild.

Where have the people gone? Did they leave for America? What clues can you find in the artefacts they have left behind? The house was built in the sixteenth century so no wonder it isn’t so strong anymore. Fungi breaks down the wood and damp and rot set in.

Insects love their new home as do the brown trout who shelter under the debris of cement that fell from the house into their stream. People may not live in this house but so much other life has found the perfect home.

A wonderful book for looking into the past and a really useful one for investigating wildlife and habitats. The atmosphere created by the artwork makes you feel like you are really exploring this old ruin. Well worth tracking down a second hand copy.

Ten Tiny Things by Meg McKinley and Kyle Hughes-Odgers

What an excellent walk. It was slow and simple and splendiferous.

Back to characters who need to get away from modern technology and start exploring the amazing world in which they live. Tessa and Zachary ride to school in a shiny, green, clean, cosy, comfortable and calm machine. But, when it breaks down they have no choice but to get out and walk the rest of the way.

Amidst complaints of aching legs and heavy backpacks, Tessa notices something tiny, red and sparkly. Together, she and Zachary examine the tiny thing. Maybe they have seen it before from their machine, but they were travelling so fast it was just a blur.

They saw fabulous fish and feathers.
They saw surprising stones and shells.
They saw beautiful birds and baubles.
They saw secret things and hidden things.

They see ten tiny things and before they know it they have walked all the way to school. When the green, clean machine is fixed they appreciate how ‘cosy and comfortable and calm’ it is, but as the world whizzes past in a speedy blur they decide that walking is much more fun.

Here I Am by Patti Kim and Sonia Sànchez

Another wordless picture book picking up the theme of belonging and exploring your local neighbourhood.

The story and illustrations are exquisite. A boy leaves his homeland and travels to a new, intimidating country full of high rise buildings, noisy streets and a language he does not understand. Lonely and confused he holds onto a little red seed, but when it drops from his hand onto the street below he is forced into exploring his local neighbourhood.

Suddenly, the frighteningly loud, city noises change to music flowing from a nearby apartment and the hustle and bustle starts to slow down into a rhythm of friendly shopkeepers, aromatic smells and pigeons who coo and flirt for crumbs. When the boy wanders into a park he spots a little girl who has found his red seed. Together they plant it and watch it grow it as the seasons change.

I really enjoyed pulling out the theme of ‘exploration’ as how many of us know the wonders on our doorstep? Do we know our local greengrocer, our closest park, our city animals and urban landscape?

Download the ‘Here I Am Reader’s Guide’ by Capstone Publishing for using this book in the classroom.

Over and Under the Snow /
Up in the Garden and Down in the Dirt by Kate Messner and Christopher Silas Neal

The next two books show how even our most familiar landscape can hide ‘secret kingdoms’. Under the snow small forest animals keep warm in burrows and over the snow tracks show that deer are nearby. Mice cuddle up in nests whilst voles are busy finding food in their labyrinth of tunnels. As the child skis over the snow with Dad, life is found everywhere around and beneath them.

And whilst gardening with Nana, insects like pillbugs, hornworms and earthworms are busy eating and digging and laying their eggs. Spiders and hens, wasps and bees, a hungry snake and an unlucky grasshopper fill the garden with their busy lives often invisible to those who don’t know what to look for.

‘Over and Under the Pond’ is another book from this series which I have on order.

When Dad Showed Me the Universe by Ulf Stark and Eva Erikson (Translated from the Swedish När Pappa Visade Mig Väarldsalltet by Julia Marshall).

One day Dad said he thought I was old enough for him to show me the universe.

Then we came to a ditch full of water. Dad carried me across so I wouldn’t get wet.

Dad is keen to show off his knowledge of astronomy and takes his son on a journey through the park and past the shops until they reach the place were there were no streetlights at all.

The journey to the universe is very special as the little boy questions how far they will be travelling and what they will need on the journey. He wears an extra pair of socks to protect against the minus 263 degrees and learns that provisions are the things you take on your expedition – in this case a pack of gum.

I thought it was the most beautiful place I’d ever seen.

All along the route the boy spots all the details that make his life wonderful from the liquorice wheels in the shop to a ‘snail from the universe creeping over a stone … a blade of grass swaying in the winds of the universe.’

“So, how was the universe?” asked my mother.
“It was beautiful,” I said. “And funny.”

Dad’s enthusiasm is swiftly halted when he steps in dog poo. “All I wanted was to show you something beautiful that you’d remember forever” he tells his son.

Owl Moon by Jane Yolen and John Schoenherr

This old favourite, a winner of the 1988 Caldecott prize, captures the magic of being out on a winter’s moonlit night.

Trying to find a Great Horned Owl, a child and her dad ‘crunch over the crisp snow’ and ‘feel the cold as if someone’s icy hand was palm-down on my back’. Keeping silent, because ‘if you go owling you have to be quiet’ they walk-on in through the dark woods until Dad’s calls are returned.

When they see the owl land before them, ‘maybe even a hundred minutes’ go by as they stare at one another until finally she flies away and Dad and child return home in silence.


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