In this post, I look at two nonfiction books for young readers. Both are featured in the current "Forest of Reading" program, a province-wide recreational reading program sponsored by the Ontario Library Association. Both fiction and nonfiction winners of the various Forest of Reading awards - Silver Birch, Red Maple, and so on - are featured in public and school libraries throughout the province. In other words, lots of kids will read these books. And that is a very good thing.
The Sea Wolves: Living Wild in the Great Bear Rainforest, Ian McAllister and Nicholas Read, 2012
This beautiful book introduces young readers to some fascinating creatures and their unique habitat. The Sea Wolves begins with the many cultural myths and fears about wolves, then dispels those misconceptions with facts about these beautiful, intelligent, highly social animals. The book examines a unique sub-species of wolf that lives in the rainforest on Canada's Pacific coast. Smaller and thinner than the gray wolf, the sea wolf can swim like an otter, and fishes for salmon like a bear! The sea wolves are also unique among wolves in that they have never been hunted. The First Nations people of the area have lived side-by-side with wolves for thousands of years; their culture holds wolves in a position of respect and admiration. The book also describes the wonders of the Great Bear Rainforest, an isolated wilderness now threatened by plans for the tarsands pipeline.
A lot of information is packed into this short book, richly paired with Ian McAllister's stunning photographs of the sea wolves and the rainforest. (McAllister and Read's earlier book about the Great Bear Rainforest, The Salmon Bears, was also a Forest of Reading selection.) The book is truly a love-letter to wolves and to the Canadian rainforest.
Although The Sea Wolves makes a strong case for conservation and preservation, and does mention that the wolves' future is uncertain and the rainforest is threatened, it stops short of endorsing activism. One never knows about the politics behind the scenes - if the authors had wanted to make the activism piece stronger, but were prevented from doing so - but a short piece of "What you can do to help" would have been better than merely giving a website where interested readers can get more information.
This is a beautiful book, both visually attractive and extremely well written. It has the potential to propel many young readers towards a fascination with wolves, the sea wolf, and one of our continent's last bit of wilderness.
Talking to children about cruelty is always tricky. I've written about, for example, being traumatized by learning about the Holocaust as a child in Hebrew school, and by seeing certain details of animal abuse on a documentary. Children need to see the world as it is, but a sensitive child can be overwhelmed by the view.
In No Shelter Here, a book about animal abuse and injustice, Rob Laidlaw has found the perfect approach. The book alternates between problem and solution, first showing us an arena of maltreatment - such as puppy mills, research, or dogs kept alone and chained - then introducing us to "Dog Champions," actual young people who have taken action. For every injustice, there is a real person fighting for justice, and suggestions on how a young reader can get involved. In this way, the book is not merely informative and depressing, it is motivating and empowering.
Young people from all over the world are spotlighted as Dog Champions, each with photos, a short story of how they got started, the actions they chose, and their accomplishments. At the end of the book, readers are invited to take The Dog Lover's Pledge, and to visit animal-welfare websites.
No Shelter Here is full of photographs of imploring brown eyes and dogs in need of champions, but the photos are not shocking or explicit. There are also plenty of photos of Dog Champions at work, and joyful, healthy dogs who have been championed. As one reviewer put it, the issues are "addressed frankly but gently". Animal-loving children will find this book disturbing, but they are likely to motivated to educate others, and to become part of the solution.