Nature and Nurture: 8 Picture Books for Earth Day

Written and illustrated by Gracey Zhang

We meet Lala leaping out her apartment door as if she were being born. By the time we turn the page she’s halfway down the gray-black ink-and-gouache city block, her newly painted yellow dress splattering sunlight in its wake. Lala’s destination? A “patch of dirt and concrete,” where her “kind words” make tiny leaves grow. Zhang’s style, blending warmhearted multiethnic urban caricature with a bold-lined rough-and-tumble zeal, is wholly original. And like the compliment Lala pays her soon science-fiction-size plants, this debut picture book (which also depicts a burgeoning mother-daughter relationship) is “magnificent.”

48 pp. Scholastic. $18.99. (Ages 4 to 8)

Written and illustrated by Juana Martinez-Neal

This book isn’t just about the Peruvian Amazon, it literally is the Peruvian Amazon: Its illustrations were created on paper made from banana bark by women living in the village of Chazuta. Its delightfully impish main character is Asháninka, the area’s largest Indigenous group. And its Peruvian-born author provides an Asháninka translation of Zonia’s story at the back. (The book is also available in Spanish.) But what truly makes it stand out is its message of self-determination: These Indigenous people, Martinez-Neal has written, are “not saved but take charge.”

40 pp. Candlewick. $17.99. (Ages 4 to 8)

Written and illustrated by Tatiana Ukhova

A nameless girl sunbathes outside her house on a towel in the grass — flat with arms outstretched, like a paper doll; clothes, shoes, teddy bear and giant sunglasses attached. Perhaps how something flying overhead might see her. When an ant crawls on her nose, her eyes snap open and cross. Off come the glasses as she explores, gaining dimension with each startling, fraught encounter: caterpillar, beetle, grasshopper. Ukhova plays with spatial relations and visual distortion, showing up-close and pulled-back views from multiple perspectives — the girl’s, the reader’s, the insects’ — in this wordless, gloriously inventive debut.

56 pp. Greystone Kids. $18.95. (Ages 4 to 7)

Written and illustrated by Corinna Luyken

Luyken (“My Heart”) uses no green whatsoever in this picture book about nature and trees. Green, she has said, would be “too literal.” Instead, since her theme is “being able to see connections with your heart and mind,” she pairs neon pinks with mustard yellows and dark browns. The effect is luminous and joyous, a fruit-pie feast for the eyes as well as the soul: “The tree in me is part apple, part orange-pear-almond-plum (part yummm).”

56 pp. Dial. $17.99. (Ages 4 to 8)

Written and illustrated by Christina Booth

The inspiration for this book was the first whale in almost 200 years (after early settlers hunted them to near extinction) to migrate to northern Tasmania — in Booth’s native Australia — and give birth to a calf in the river there. Booth’s tale of an intuitive boy who hears a whale’s aching song each morning is moody and mystical. Her lyrical prose and cerulean watercolor art swim together like mother and calf: “two voices calling with a story of new beginnings.”

32 pp. Blue Dot Kids. $17.95. (Ages 4 to 9)

Written by Travis Jonker. Illustrated by Grant Snider.

“Little Blue lived near the North Pole with his parents. They were close.” Since little Blue and his parents are icebergs, this opening line is deadpan humor at its finest, setting a perfect tone for the family’s unintentional breakup and Blue’s bittersweet journey through the water cycle, with appropriate climate change education on the side. Jonker smartly hedges his bets on the ending, choosing a happy one accompanied by back-matter caveats and tips, while Snider’s cut-paper illustrations give emotional texture to a charming tale of separation and reattachment.

40 pp. Abrams. $17.99. (Ages 4 to 8)

Written by Andrea Wang. Illustrated by Jason Chin.

To the young Chinese-American protagonist of this autobiographical tale set in a mostly white, rural Ohio town in the late 1970s, the piquant leafy green is a source of shame — a muddy plant from a roadside ditch that her immigrant parents make her and her brother help forage in view of passing cars — until she learns what it means to them. Wang’s multilayered, poetic text allows anger, guilt and grief to coexist with love and hope. Chin’s captivating watercolor art, executed with a mix of Chinese and Western techniques, combines meticulous, gut-wrenching realism with dreamlike panoramas.

32 pp. Neal Porter/Holiday House. $18.99. (Ages 4 to 8)

Written and illustrated by Monika Vaicenaviciene

As a girl picks flowers on the banks of a river, she wonders about its “hidden depths.” “River, who are you?” “A river is a thread” that “stitches stories together,” her grandmother says. A journey that “can begin anywhere.” A mystery, and history. What we “throw away or lose,” rivers often “hold and remember.” With their “ceaseless motion,” they “invite us to see things anew.”

48 pp. Enchanted Lion. $18.95. (Ages 4 to 8)

Jennifer Krauss is the children’s books editor of the Book Review.

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