Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Happy Earth Day: Two Lessons on Litter

It's after midnight, so I can officially say happy Earth Day!!!! In the spirit of stewardship, I thought I'd share a couple of picture books with you that can be helpful when talking to young children about something we all deal with every day--trash. Whether we're taking it out, sorting out recycling, trying to figure out how to produce less of it, or lamenting all the trash we see on the side of road, trash is a part of our lives for better or worse. These two books teach children how proper disposal and management of waste is important for everyone's quality of life.

The Day the Trash Came Out to Play by David M. Beadle tells the story of Sutton Nash, the "cleanest town in the land" and how this idyllic town was sullied one day when a young boy named Robin thoughtlessly tossed a candy wrapper on the ground instead of in the trash bin. Laurie A. Faust's clever illustrations animate the "Super Sourpuss" candy wrapper by showing the caped superhero on the wrapper flying about on the wind, dismayed and disheveled as his wrapper blows all over town annoying wildlife and inadvertently encouraging other bits of trash to leave their proper receptacles and "come out to play." The story is told in rhyming verse, making it more fun to read aloud, and also a good selection to simultaneously celebrate National Poetry Month. The story teaches that it is important to consider how our trash affects others. At first Robin thinks it's funny to see to the wrapper blowing about and believes he need not worry about it once it is out of sight. "What Robin forgot to think about, is that it has to go somewhere." There's also a lesson about setting a proper example by doing the right thing. When other bits of trash see the wrapper flying around, they decide to come out and run all over town (the illustrations for this are cute as each bit of trash is animated, and it all looks mischievous). "Because they saw someone else go first, they thought it was okay." Of course we're really talking about people here. People will be more likely to litter or be apathetic about their own waste when they see others behaving that way or evidence that others have done so before them (i.e. litter on the ground). This lesson is underscored by the town sign, which is shown at the beginning and end of the story. At the end, an addition to the sign has been made: "Trash begets Trash." The citizens of Sutton Nash are dismayed by the rampant litter problem, and Robin realizes his mistake. He leads the town in a cleanup, and after the incident, the town builds a recycling center.

The Great Trash Bash, written and illustrated by Loreen Leedy, is a similar story about a town called Beaston--appropriately named because it is populated by anthropomorphic animals. As in the previous book, the story begins by describing the beauty of Beaston as we see a sign welcoming us to the town, but it is noted that "something is wrong." This is clear from the illustration, which shows an old abandoned car by the trees, litter along the side of the road, and a series of signs, spaced Burma Shave-style, that tell motorists to "Buy More More and More." The book is much like a comic book because in addition to the main narration, the story is told via speech balloons on the illustrations. Mayor Hippo feels that something is amiss but can't put his finger on it. He is shown interacting with citizens that toss litter on the ground, discuss throwing out their old possessions after buying new items and lament over a polluted body of water where no swimming is allowed. Finally, after slipping on a banana peel and landing in a pile of litter, the mayor realizes that there is too much waste and wasteful behavior in the town. He leads the reader on visits to the dump, the incinerator and the landfill, and he and other characters note the benefits and drawbacks of all of these alternatives for waste management. After discussing their trash problem, the citizens decide to make lifestyle changes that will reduce waste, such as buying in bulk, avoiding excess packaging, and reusing items. They learn to fix their possessions to make them last longer, to recycle and compost, and not to litter. In the end, we see the "Welcome to Beaston" sign again and have the beauties of the town reiterated, but this time we can see that everything is cleaner and all the citizens are out enjoying the landscape and celebrating. On the last page of the book, Leedy offers 13 simple tips for reducing waste. Due to the speech bubble format and the more complex ideas dealt with in this book, it's a bit harder to read aloud than The Day the Trash Came Out to Play, but it can lead to some interesting conversations with kids as you discuss the lessons the mayor learns about waste and what happens to items when you recycle them or compost them.

For more suggestions on books to read with kids as you celebrate Earth Day, see's search results on Earth Day,'s list of suggested Earth Day books for children and teens, and the Green Reading for EE Week list on the National Environmental Education Week website.

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