Monday, March 9, 2009

I Know What Kids Like (geeky science kids, anyway…)

So last week I was “tagged” with this task:

“…come up with a list half-dozen-or-so books you would recommend every young person read by the end of their school years to help them maintain a sense of connection to, and value in, the natural world.”

I have this thing about chain letters or tagging, or “tell-two-friends” or anything that even smells like “Network-Marketing”/MLM (Lord knows we get enough of that here in Utah), but I’ve been tagged and I’m going to do it, because the tagger, Sally, has helped me out countless times and I can’t let her down.

Tangent: I know ranting about MLMs is a real third-rail type of deal here in Utah, but I can’t let the topic pass without mentioning this quick observation. When you grow up in the real world (outside of Utah) and then move to Utah as an adult, and you see all these network/multi-level-marketing outfits that are based here, and meet all these otherwise-reasonable people who are way enmeshed in them, your reaction is like WTF? Didn’t we all figure out Amway was a big, parasitic pyramid scheme back in like 1975? It’s as if you moved to another state and when you got there people were still driving big gas-guzzlers and having 8 kids and listening to the Osmonds and… oh wait… never mind…

So I scratched my head for a while and thought about it. There are so many great nature-oriented books, but which ones would I get an 18 year-old or younger to read? I’ve recommended a number of books in this blog, but do I really see a 15 (or 12 year-old, or an 8 year-old) year-old curling up with “The Seven Mysteries of Life”? Sally (and some other folks) have suggested some truly wonderful books, but I’m just not sure that you can really get a book like Desert Solitaire until you’ve lived and worked for a few years on your own and had to confront some of the work/life/environment issues that are at the core of a book like that.

And besides, let’s be honest. If you tell a kid to read something, they’re gonna hate it.

So I stewed and noodled about the task for a while, until I realized that the answer was right in front of me.

From time to time in this blog, I brag. And here’s one of those times. I’ve often bragged about Bird Whisperer, my 9 year-old firstborn son. I’ve bragged about his knowledge of birds and animals and science and his generally great attitude about the world, and the natural world in particular. I’ve always felt he was “hatched” this way more so than that I really did anything to make him turn out so great, but I realize now that I have indeed done at least one really terrific thing for him as a parent, and that is this: Whenever we are in a bookstore, or park service/BLM/museum gift shop, and he wants a guidebook, I (almost always) buy it for him. I don’t do this with toys or videos or computer games or snacks or anything else, but I do it with guidebooks. And as a result, ever since he could read, Bird Whisperer has devoured guidebook after guidebook, and doing so has done wonders to help make him the marvel he is.

So here’s a list that isn’t particularly well-known or high-minded or philosophical, or any member of which ever won a literary prize, but it’s a list of books a motivated, curious kid really will read and remember.

Note: Yeah, yeah I can hear it already, “But these are guidebooks!” I don’t care. If the goal is to get a “young person” to read something that gives them a “sense of connection to, and value in, the natural world,” then the book to give them is one with color photos, maps and facts. Facts they can absorb, daydream about and then regurgitate (and get excited about) when they actually see the thing in the wild.

Kaufcut Kaufman Field Guide to Birds of North America, by Kenn Kaufman. Best, easiest, fastest bird guide we’ve found. Full of color pics, migration-range maps and details on probably a few thousand different birds. Broken into sections by easy, kid-friendly categories, such as “Birds of Prey”, “Wading Birds” and “Chicken-Like Birds.”

birdsong covercut Birdsongs: 250 North American Birds in Song, by Les Beletsky. This book is a blast. Not just a guidebook, but it includes a built-in speaker plays snippets of all the birds’ songs/calls/squawks. Bird Whisperer used this book over and over till he finally destroyed the sound system, and it was this book that helped me to initially identify the Western Meadowlark.

MammalsRMcut Lone Pine Field Guide- Mammals of the Rocky Mountains*, by Fisher, Pattie and Hartson. Though my favorite mammal guidebook is the Peterson Field Guide- Mammals of North America, by Fiona Reid, the Lone Pine Guides are written in a more approachable, kid-friendly fashion. The whole series is great; Bird Whisperer practically memorized Mammals of California during one of our summer road trips across Nevada to Lake Tahoe.

*Bird Whisperer proofread this post (except for the MLM tangent) and reminded me that we actually bought this guide for his younger brother, Twin A.

RM trackscut Animal Tracks of the Rocky Mountains, by Chris Stall. I actually bought this one for myself a few years back. Bird Whisperer quickly “borrowed” it and I’ve never gotten it back. Nice pocket-sized guide full of easy-to-understand foot/hoof/paw prints, and interesting facts about each animal.

squirrelbookcut Lone Pine Field Guide- Squirrels of the West, by Tamara Hartson. We picked this up a few years back at the Grand Canyon North Rim gift shop. Guess how many “squirrels” there are in the Western US? 65, according to Ms. Hartson, and the easy, kid-friendly Lone Pine format helps make your kid an expert on all of them.

Snakebook Snakes of Utah, by Douglas Cox and Wilmer Tanner. What kid isn’t fascinated by snakes? Utah has over 30 native snakes, and this guide includes basic info, range maps, and excellent photos of all of them. (This one is hard to find; we got ours through the BYU Museum bookstore.)

minimonstercut Mini-Monsters: Nature’s Tiniest and Most Terrifying Creatures, by Paula Hammond. I’ve saved the the best for last. This little book is chock-full of scary- and often venomous- little insects, scorpions, spiders, reptiles, amphibians and much more. If your little boy doesn’t like this one, there’s something wrong with him. Go take him to the doctor and have them run some tests…

Note: If you have a young son, grandson, or nephew you need to buy a gift for, this list is gold. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that all of these are also very enjoyable reads for nature-minded 40-something dads, as well.


Anonymous said...

Here I was taking notes on great nature books for my niece when I read that these are only for my nephew! Or maybe her Dad. Bummer... next time include field guides for girls, too... Who knew they made them differently for boys and girls!

Rachel said...

Thanks for the recommendations. My 9-yr-old daughter loves to collect those Audubon birds (little stuffed animals) that play their song when you squeeze them. I think she has 15, and she will love Birdsong. Since she breezes through any other book, reference books are a good alternative for her, since they last longer.

SLW said...

Uh, oh...

Well, I thought you did a great job anyway. Looks like it's already worthwhile. Don't think of it as a pyramid scheme--think of it as spreading the word!

Watcher said...

Laurel- fair enough! In truth, I considered editing out- or at least acknowledging- the obvious gender bias in this post. But the fact is that in my limited test pool (my kids)- 2 boys, 1 girl- guidebooks have never clicked for the girl (Twin B.) It’s not an intelligence issue- she was the best, earliest reader of the 3, and has scored highest on standardized tests. The guidebooks just don’t grab her the way they do the boys. I’ve noticed a similar trend with games, cartoons, videos, toys, etc.- the boys are much more interested in lists of creatures, characters, things, and the specific attributes associated with those things (carnivore vs. herbivore, # of “damage points”, “special powers”, etc.) Twin B seems to be more interested in overall themes, stories and ideas more than detailed fact-lists.

And lest any reader assume a gender-bias in the pseudonym assignation of “Twin A” and “Twin B”, these were assigned by their OBgyn during pregnancy, at the first ultrasound. Coincidentally, Twin A exited the womb first, and the nicknames stuck. (Someday I hope to do an “All About Twins” post.)

Dave Coulter said...

Excellent choices! I came "this close" to doing a similar list of field guides, etc!

KristenT said...

Hey, now, it's not just boys who would dig the books on that list!! Let's be a little more open-minded about science and the young, eh?

Besides... I think I'd really like all those books, and I don't fall into the "kid" category anymore! :)

Great book suggestions!!!

Unknown said...

You must be an awesome nature geek dad!! I grew up with a nature geek dad & am addicted to tidepools, puddles and looking under rocks (don't live where there are poisonous critters luckily) as a result. And thus incorporate critters in my art all the time.

You might also enjoy any guide book by John Acorn; they're humorous, interesting and well illustrated.

Watcher said...

Amie- Thanks for the link- I hadn't heard of Acorn, but his books look great!

BTW, your art is really cool. If you don't mind I may "borrow" the Magpie image (with attribution) when I get around to my Magpie post.