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Using pictures books in the classroom to engage environmental literacy

By Cecily Heras

Through exploring environmental literacy in the many forms of story our culture has produced by combining dialogue, ecocritical, and visual literacy, teachers can help students engage critically with more inclusive worldviews as well as with the ideologies of inequity that are a basis of many of our current systems and practices. By using story to engage learners and exploring wisdom in the form of imagination, we can hope to reach an alternative transformative paradigm and embrace a different, sustainable future. The imagination gives each of us the ability to see an issue from a different point of view and gain empathy and compassion for others. The imagination also allows each of us to form mental images and narratives of things we do not directly perceive through our senses, and so it is in the freedom of the imagination that students have the potential to create change. In the process of living the creation of our own personal narratives, we have the opportunity to re-imagine the future and to carry hope within us that our vision will come to fruition. “We are inseparable from the world, and …the beauty and terror of our society co-arise with us” (Macy & Brown, 2014, p.24). It is up to us all, then, to imagine what the post-neoliberal, decolonized, reunified, and reinhabited world can and will look like. By imagining ourselves in a different relationship with nature now, we can then move ahead toward that reality. By imagining a society based on interconnectedness, we begin to open up the conversation and unleash its potential.

In order to delve more deeply into environmental literacy in the classroom with any number of texts, teachers can ask several questions which will help facilitate conversations about representations of the environment and their broader social implications. Thus, through their exploration of picturebooks, not only will students gain decoding and debunking skills necessary to navigate our sensation-rich, commodified, and overtly marketed world, they will begin to think about how our interactions with nature are influenced by texts. In turn, and as their understanding deepens and relationships are explored, they will begin to change their interactions with nature itself as well as all those with whom they share the planet. Through exploring picturebooks in this way, students will begin to develop relationships with and compassion for all life, in the hope that they will act toward creating a sustainable and equitable future. With these questions in mind, students will begin to contemplate the ways the books invite them to see how people can be complicit in perpetuating dominant systems, as well as the ways they are invited to question those systems.

  1. How is nature represented in these texts?

  2. How are animals represented in these texts?

  3. What is the relationship between animals, the environment, and humans?

  4. How has the concept of nature changed when comparing different texts over time?

  5. What is the influence of metaphors and representations of the land and the environment on how we treat it?

  6. What parallels can be drawn between the sufferings and oppression of groups of people and the depictions and treatment of the land?

  7. Where is the environment placed in the power hierarchy?

Further research is needed when it comes to using picturebooks critically in the classroom. This research should contain informed examinations of the relationships within the picturebook, analysis of children’s interpretations and the ways they use design and other semiotic features when making sense of them, and a look at the ways teachers learn and use the language of picturebooks in their classrooms in both appreciative and critical ways to develop a greater awareness of social issues (Kachorsky et al., 2017; Sipe, 2007). At least part of the research should be conducted with students outside, and should rely on formative assessment techniques, as classroom-based research which relies on a standards-based paradigm, and whose methods are tested only within four walls “is inadequate to the larger tasks of cultural and ecological analysis that reinhabitation and decolonization demand” (Gruenewald, 2003, p. 10).

I imagine that most educators would agree that it is important to carefully consider the texts brought into the classroom. It is now part of the teacher’s job not only to help students better understand concepts as presented in written text, but also to help them more fully understand how images interact with our conscious and unconscious minds. Given our current ecological and social crises, the teacher’s job also includes guiding students in “the experience of being human in connection with the others and with the world of nature, and the responsibility to conserve and restore our shared environments for future generations” (Gruenewald, 2003, p. 6). While many primary teachers regularly consider using picturebooks, more often than not, teachers of older students ignore these resources. Attending critically to the ecological features of picturebooks can help students gain experience and understanding of text, decoding visuals and design features, and examining dominant societal narratives. Picturebooks can easily be applied to various disciplines and are appropriate for students of all ages. Additionally, teachers may choose how many layers to delve into with students depending on their readiness. When given the language and understanding of the textual and visual elements on which interpretations are based, students can articulate their understanding more fully, and apply these skills to any number of texts they encounter in their daily lives. Where I see the teacher’s commitment needs to be is to determine how to get students to delve more deeply into texts, which can open up the possibility of social change. Without depth, we cannot hope to make connections and in turn we cannot grow in compassion. Without compassion, we will always be separate and in turn will continue to serve the prevailing ‘us vs. them’ attitude.

Additional picturebooks for environmental literacy

What follows is a short list of picturebooks that can be used to aid environmental literacy in the classroom. Each book choice includes a brief description and some discussion ideas for the ways the text can be critically approached. Through examining these books, students can arrive at a variety of personal interpretations and, once more fluent with the skills and upon subsequent readings, will begin to see deeper layers of meaning. Though not comprehensive, this list can help teachers begin their work with picturebooks, addressing design features and deeper issues as their students are ready. When delved into, environmental literacy can lead to a number of conversations revolving around some of the uncomfortable truths about our society. A teacher must bear in mind that while we do face our ultimate demise due to the ongoing degradation of our environment, these books are offered as more than a doom-and-gloom scenario in which participants have very little power. Environmental literacy can help us first break down and then take up damaging ideologies while at the same time, when coupled with authentic experiences of/in Place, can instill a greater appreciation of the natural world. When used among other print and image-based resources throughout the school year, picturebooks can not only reveal the limitations placed upon each of us by the current system and the products it produces, but also provide us with examples of the changing tides of societal trends. Thus, though not all are up to the task of critical examination, carefully chosen picturebooks are powerful tools to use in the classroom to raise awareness, deepen students’ connections to self, society, and the natural world, and to offer us avenues into the as-yet-unimagined.

Base, G. (2006). Uno’s Garden. Penguin Books.

A counting book which points out species extinction due to human habitation. Can lead to discussion of human interactions with nature, nature as regenerative if cared for, and the consequences of greed.

Boisrobert, A. & Rigaud, L. (2010). Popville. Roaring Brook Press.

A pop-up book detailing the fall of a natural environment and the rise of an urban development. This can be used to discuss personal and societal views of the costs of urban sprawl and the effects of the industrial growth society on the environment.

Frankel, E. & Duncan, G.R. (2013). Hairy Nose, Itchy Butt. Read How You Want.

A hairy-nosed Wombat has an itch he can’t scratch, and somebody has chopped down his favourite scratching tree. Can lead to a discussion of habitat destruction and the use of wildlife reserves.

Greder, A. (2008). The Island. Allen & Unwin.

One morning the people of an island find a man sitting on the shore where his frail raft had lead him in the night. Acclaimed, award-winning, harsh, powerful, and astonishing, can be used to discuss the us vs. them dichotomy that has and does propagate the ideas of hierarchy and separation.

Riddle, T. (2001). The Singing Hat. Farrar, Strauss, Giroux.

A man who wakes from a nap in the park to find a bird has built a nest on his head makes the surprising decision to alter his own life in an effort not to disturb the bird. Can lead to discussions around ecological preservation/ecocitizenry vs. commercial interests and society’s view of both.

Sendak, M. (1963). Where the Wild Things Are. Harper & Row.

The young character goes on an adventure to a faraway inhabited island where he quickly becomes the king of the beasts. Lauded as a classic, and winner of numerous awards including the Caldecott, it can be used to point out some of the actions and tenets of colonialism in terms of its treatment of the other-than-human.

Smith, B. (2020). The Keeper of Wild Words. Chronicle Books.

A touching tale of a grandmother and her granddaughter exploring and cherishing the natural world through highlighting some of the words dropped from a well-known abridged children’s dictionary, such as blackberry and buttercup. Can lead to a discussion about the effects of technology on our appreciation of, interaction with, and assigned importance of the natural world.

Smith, M.G. & Flett, J. (2016). My heart fills with happiness. Orca Book Publishers.

A very simple and beautiful book, which highlights the love of nature, the importance of community, as well as some Indigenous practices. Can be used to discuss how far neoliberalism has taken society from the ideas which build community and give meaning to one’s life.

Tan, S. (2000). The Lost Thing. Hachette Livre.

A boy finds an out-of-place creature on the beach and sets off on a journey to find its home. Though the creature clearly does not belong in the boy’s world, by the end of the book it is not entirely clear who or what has been lost. Can be used to address cognitive differences as well as passively being enveloped into societal ideologies.

Weisner, D. (1991). Tuesday. Clarion Books.

Frogs begin to fly all around a nameless town one Tuesday evening. A nearly wordless book, it highlights the possibility that nature’s reality is beyond our imagination, and can also be used as an example to discuss the power of the visual sign systems.


Gruenewald, D. A. (2016). The Best of Both Worlds: A Critical Pedagogy of Place. Educational Researcher, 32(4), 3–12. Kachorsky, D., Moses, L., Serafini, F. & Hoelting, M. (2017). Meaning Making with Picturebooks: Young Children’s use of Semiotic Resources. Literacy Research and Instruction, 56 (3), 231-249.

Macy, J. & Brown, M. Y., (2014). Coming back to life : the updated guide to the Work that reconnects. New Society Publishers.

Sipe, L.R. (2007). Young children’s visual meaning making in response to picturebooks. In Flood, J. Heath, S.B, & Lapp, D. (Eds.). Handbook of research on teaching literacy through the communicative and visual arts. Routledge.


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